Personal Freedom

Jury Trials for Termination of Parental Rights

Only five of the 50 states require or permit jury trials for cases where the state is seeking to legally sever a parent-child relationship. The remaining states prohibit the practice, whether through statute, case law, or court rule. Utah should join these few states and buck the trend by allowing jury trials for these cases.

The fate of a family should not be exclusively placed in the hands of a single judge. In our interview last week with Vanessa Sommerfield, whose four children were taken from her under what appear to be extremely dubious circumstances, and whose biased judge refused to recuse herself, a spotlight was directed at one of many cases in Utah where parents have been stripped of their relationship to their children by the state for highly questionable reasons.

Jury trials are a bedrock of the American justice system. During the Stamp Act controversy, John Adams railed against an increase in judicial authority in admiralty courts as “the most grievous innovation of all.” He noted specifically that, “In these courts, one judge presides alone! No juries have any concern there! The law and the fact are both to be decided by the same single judge.”

So important were trials by jury to the founding generation, who suffered many abuses as a result of concentrated judicial authority, that the issue was listed as one of the abuses justifying the Declaration of Independence: “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has likewise affirmed, in its 1968 opinion on Duncan v. Louisiana:

Those who wrote our constitutions knew from history and experience that it was necessary to protect against unfounded criminal charges brought to eliminate enemies and against judges too responsive to the voice of higher authority. The framers of the constitutions strove to create an independent judiciary but insisted upon further protection against arbitrary action. Providing an accused with the right [to] trial by a jury of his peers gave him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge.

More specifically, the justices stated, the right to a trial by jury is “to prevent oppression by the Government.”

Wisconsin is one of the few states that allows jury trial in termination of parental rights cases. Rich case law in that state affirms its importance. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, for example, has written:

Further, the permanency of termination orders “work[s] a unique kind of deprivation. In contrast to matters modifiable at the parties’ will or based on changed circumstances, termination adjudications involve the awesome authority of the State to destroy permanently all legal recognition of the parental relationship.” For these reasons, “parental termination decrees are among the most severe forms of state action.” Due to the severe nature of terminations of parental rights, termination proceedings require heightened legal safeguards against erroneous decisions.

These are the same legal safeguards Utah parents should be afforded. Imagine that the state is coming after you as a mother or father, based on spurious charges that no unbiased judge or independent jury would support. Consider your circumstances: the children who you love have been removed from your care, and now the government is aiming to legally sever your parental connection to them. If you are indeed innocent in this case, is it sufficient to trust a single judge to fairly and properly determine the fate of your family? And if that judge has significant bias, having once directed the very child services organization now seeking to terminate your rights, can you rest assured that the outcome will be just?

Jury trials are afforded alleged criminals who face jail time. These individuals, even if innocent, will enter the penal system, serve their time, and return to society. While this punishment may be harsh—especially if the accused is actually innocent—it is temporary and tolerable. This is not true of cases where a parent’s rights to his or her children are terminated. If juries are allowed to determine the guilt and punishment of alleged criminals, then why are they denied from independently judging the state’s claims against a parent whose very relationship to their children is at risk of legal termination?

In FY2013, 761 cases were filed in juvenile courts throughout Utah seeking to terminate parental rights. If just one of these cases involved a parent who was actually innocent, then justice demands due process be afforded to this individual. The current legal system denies due process by requiring parents to seek justice from a juvenile court system with no option for jury trial. The current legal system must therefore be changed.

Representative Lavar Christensen is sponsoring legislation to allow an individual the option of jury trial in these types of cases. It is important to note that jury trials would not be required, but left available as an option for those who desire it. (Some individuals may feel that a jury filled with parents might judge them more harshly than a potentially sympathetic juvenile court judge, for example.) What’s necessary is that the choice be provided to the parent, rather than altogether denied them.