The Texas Supreme Court put to rest last month the long and grueling custody battle of local father Chris Clay.
On June 26, the court, by unanimous nine-vote decision, reversed lower court rulings holding that Clay must share custody of his 5-year-old biological daughter, Ann, with an associated non-relative.
Clay had previously received sole conservatorship of his daughter following the tragic death of her mother in a 2018 accident. Matters were immediately complicated when the mother’s short-term fiancé, referred to in court filings as J.D., successfully sued for partial custody in a Texas trial court.
“The question presented in this case is whether the presumption that fit parents act according to the best interest of their children applies when modifying an existing order that names a parent as the child’s managing conservator,” Justice Jane Bland wrote in her majority opinion. “Because a fit parent presumptively acts in the best interest of his or her child and has a ‘fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control’ of that child, we hold that it does.”
“The trial court’s decision in the case reflects ‘exactly the opposite’ of a parental presumption,” the opinion read.
“When a nonparent requests conservatorship or possession of a child, the child’s best interest is embedded with the presumption that it is the fit parent — not a court — who makes the determination whether to allow that request.”
Argued before the state Supreme Court in early April, the controversial case had garnered the attention of many local parents and pro-family interest groups and homeschooling advocates on its way up the legal ladder.
The Texas Home School Coalition was one such group, filing supplementary amicus briefs with the court alongside Clay’s lawyers in an attempt to fight the creation of precedent that would strip fit Texan parents of their role as final arbiter over the best interests of their children.
“It’s not like we got up to the courts and the court was trying to decide, ‘OK, this is a bad parent, but are they too bad or are they just good enough to keep their daughter?'” THSC public policy director Jeremy Newman told The Western Journal.
“The argument being made was that, even though [Clay is] a good father, still, this unrelated man has just as much right to custody as Chris has.
“That’s kind of a novel, scary concept legally because it means you don’t have to do anything wrong to lose your child. Someone else just has to want your child more than you do, or as much as you do,” Newman said. “And they get to request custody, and they can actually receive custody.”
Despite feelings the case was “clean from a legal perspective” given Clay’s parental fitness, J.D.’s legal argument that his pseudo-parental role in Ann’s life, albeit short-lived, had earned him legal standing to pursue custody apparently rang true in lower level courts.
According to the 2018 Texas Supreme Court case “In the Interest of H.S.,” the Texas Family Code does recognize that “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.
The fear for THSC and other interested groups and parents, Newman said, was that the higher courts, trying to avoid controversy, would issue a ruling on procedural grounds that left unanswered the “main question” of whether parental unfitness needs be proven for such non-relatives to be recognized, Newman said.
The court’s willingness to overwhelmingly and directly rule in favor of parent presumption was a major victory, according to Newman.
“The decision itself was really phenomenal,” Newman said. “The net result of it is going to be, I think, decades of protection for Texas families that they get out of this. Because basically what the court said was, ‘hey, all throughout the family code, the family code requires judges to make decisions based on what is in the best interests of the child.
“But, whenever, there’s a suit between a parent and a nonparent, the court has to determine what is in the best interest of the child by basically by taking the recommendation of the parent.
“In other words, the parent decides best interests, unless you can overcome the presumption in their favor through some type of evidence that’s presented showing they’re an unfit parent.”
In contact with Clay shortly after decision was delivered, Newman also told The Western Journal the father was ecstatic, describing himself as “the luckiest dad in the world.”
Clay’s fight, however, is not entirely over, as he will now have to return to the trial court in an effort to recoup roughly $250,000 in legal fees accrued as a result of the drawn-out custody battle, Newman said.
With J.D.’s case never directly dismissed by the state Supreme Court, Clay will also have to worry that another suit for custody may come later, Newman said.
As of yet, no such action is expected.
“They might try something, but I think it would probably be short-lived if they did,” Newman said.
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