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Non-Relative's Custody Play Leaves Father Seeking 'Right to Parent' Ruling at Texas Supreme Court

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The right of biological parents to raise their own children was in question Wednesday before the Supreme Court of Texas in what may soon be known as one of the most influential court cases in recent state history.

According to The Texan, oral arguments have now been heard by the Lone Star State’s highest court regarding local father Chris Clay’s harrowing battle to regain full custody of his 5-year-old daughter, Ann.

Placed in Clay’s care following a tragic 2018 accident that claimed the life of her mother, Ann has since fallen under the joint custody of her father and her mother’s fiancé of a few short months, the result of several controversial lower court decisions.

The ensuing fight to see Ann returned to the sole custody of her biological father, however, has taken on implications well beyond those of a typical family court affair, leaving the outsized custodial rights of blood relatives in the balance.

“The bottom line for this case is that the basic question court is being asked is, ‘Do parents actually have a constitutional right to raise their own children?'” Texas Home School Coalition director of public policy Jeremy Newman told The Western Journal.

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“That’s what makes it so important,” said Newman, whose third-party parental rights organization has filed legal briefs supporting Clay in the case. “How the court answers that question could have a huge impact on everybody else in Texas and, if the case goes up to the U.S. Supreme Court, it could have a huge impact on the entire country.”

How exactly the court will choose to answer that question has sparked no shortage of debate, with the facts of the case widely believed to be irregular and with conflicting precedent on the books regarding the topic in both the national and state judicial systems.

Prior to the death of Ann’s mother, a split-custody agreement had been in place under which Ann spent roughly half of her time with Clay and the other half with her mother.

Her mother’s 2017 decision to move in with then-boyfriend and eventual fiancé J.D., however, would later become the grounds upon which sole custody was stripped from Clay.

Do you believe Clay should have full custody of his daughter?

According to J.D.’s legal team, his pseudo-parental role in Ann’s life, albeit short-lived, had earned him legal standing to pursue custody alongside Clay and his would-be in-laws.

The argument rang true in lower level courts, with judges ruling the Texas Family Code recognizes “a narrow class of nonparents, who have served in a parent-like role to a child over an extended period of time, may come to court and seek to preserve that relationship, over a parent’s objections” in certain cases, as was decided in a 2018 Texas Supreme Court decision “In the Interest of H.S.

Clay’s lawyers, citing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Troxel v. Granville, argued the lower court’s decision to grant a non-relative partial custody constituted an unconstitutional violation of due process rights — particularly in a case in which the biological parent has been deemed “fit” to remain in custody of the child.

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The parental fitness of the biological father in this case has reportedly remained legally undisputed since Ann’s grandparents unsuccessfully sought custody in 2018.

“The facts of the case are part of what make it so compelling, because the father involved here wasn’t accused of doing anything wrong,” Newman said. “In fact, everybody has agreed that the father is a ‘fit parent’ who raises his daughter well.”

“But they’re still arguing that he doesn’t have any greater right to custody of his own daughter than this non-relative does,” he added.

“If we lose this case, it could have a devastating effect in Texas,” Clay’s lawyer Holly Draper said of the case. “It would set the precedent that live-in boyfriends, nannies, roommates, anyone who happened to be living in the home with the child and had a relatively minimal role in their life can sue for custody and actually get rights and time with your child.”

Fearing such precedent, the THSC has not only gotten behind Clay with amicus briefs at the Texas Supreme Court, but has also kickstarted a “Let Her Stay” social media campaign aimed at raising awareness regarding the case.

The organization’s petition for sole custody of Ann to be granted to Clay has received over 6,700 signatures.

Despite feeling disheartened by the legal process, Clay has been firm regarding the importance of his fight — not only for himself, but for other “fit parents” who stand to lose a degree of access to their children should the court rule against him once again.

“[Ann is] my everything. She’s worth fighting for,” Clay said. “I don’t want it to happen to any more families in Texas. It should end now.”

The Western Journal’s Kayla Kunkel contributed to this report.

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