Iowa Supreme Court: Truncated phone hearing on parental rights violated jailed mother’s constitutional rights

By: Rox Laird on December 3rd, 2018

A parent who is incarcerated and unable to attend a termination of parental rights hearing in person has a due process right to participate by telephone in the entire hearing, not just to give testimony, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Nov. 30.

The ruling contains explicit new requirements for juvenile court judges to follow in such cases, including taking the initiative to work with prison officials if necessary to assure that the parent is able to participation in the full hearing by telephone, and delaying the hearing in the event the parent is unable to participate by phone until a transcript of prior testimony is prepared for the parent to review.

The Court said, “the role of a juvenile judge to seek cooperation in managing the hearing becomes part of due process. Judges are leaders and must at times exercise leadership to achieve justice. This leadership means juvenile judges may need to confer with prison officials prior to termination hearings to explain the importance of the court procedures and he need for their cooperation to help assure procedural justice. It also can be found by creating an understanding of justice for others to see and respond. Justice, in the end, is not just for courts to give people. It is for all, and for all to give.”

The mother, identified as K.A., was in a South Dakota jail when a hearing was held on the termination of her rights to her five children. She argued that the Iowa juvenile court deprived her of her due process rights to confront witnesses, to assist in cross-examining witnesses, and to hear and refute the State’s evidence.

The Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Mark Cady, held that a continuance of the termination hearing sought by the mother while she was jailed was not in the best interests of her children but that she should have been able to participate by telephone in the entire termination proceeding. All seven justices agreed on those two issues.

But Justice Susan Christensen – joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield – filed a dissent disagreeing with the majority’s framing of the case as a question of constitutional rights rather than one of “sound judicial administration.” Christensen also objected to the majority’s prescription for what steps juvenile courts must take to protect those constitutional rights. She said the ruling could have an explosive impact on juvenile courts.

“As a matter of sound judicial administration, incarcerated parents generally should be permitted to participate by phone in the entire termination hearing as long as it is arranged by the parent’s attorney and allowed by prison officials,” Christensen wrote. “Contrary to the majority’s holding, failure to do so in this case was simply a lack of sound judicial administration, not a matter of constitutional due process.”

Christensen, who served as a juvenile judge and later as a district judge before joining the Court, said the majority opinion transforms civil parental rights termination hearings into quasi-criminal proceedings that favor incarcerated parents over the interests of children. The majority holding “is detached from reality, as it creates substantial practical problems and provides no guidance to resolve them,” Christensen wrote, citing problems with requiring transcripts when there is a shortage of court reporters, and requiring juvenile judges – rather than the parent’s lawyers – to ensure that prison inmates are able to meaningfully participation in hearings by telephone.

“Instead of following settled law or using our supervisory authority to provide procedural direction,” she wrote, “the majority throws a stick of dynamite into the juvenile court system by adopting a hard and fast approach holding incarcerated parents are entitled to participate telephonically for the entire termination hearing or, in the alternative, delaying the child’s permanency by stopping the trial so that expedited full transcripts can be prepared.” In disagreeing with the Court’s application of the due process clause, Christensen wrote, “The majority is altering the constitutional landscape in our state based on an unpreserved constitutional claim without providing a cogent analysis of controlling constitutional precedent.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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