In re Marriage of Meredith

Decision Date18 February 2009
Docket NumberNo. 37098-1-II.,37098-1-II.
Citation201 P.3d 1056,148 Wn. App. 887
CourtWashington Court of Appeals
PartiesIn re the Marriage of Anthony Philip MEREDITH, Petitioner, and Jazmin Eliana Muriel Suarez Meredith, Respondent.

Anthony Meredith, Irving, CA, Pro Se.

Justin Maxwell Sedell, David Brendan Starks, McKinley Irvin PLLC, Seattle, WA, for Respondent.

QUINN-BRINTNALL, J.

¶ 1 When Anthony Meredith was about 37 years old and a Virginia Assistant Attorney General, he sought a foreign bride on the internet. He contacted a 16-year-old Colombian girl named Jazmin Muriel. When Muriel turned 18, she moved to Virginia and married Meredith. Less than 10 months after the wedding, then-pregnant Muriel fled to Washington State. Meredith petitioned for dissolution and the Pierce County family court granted the petition to dissolve the unhappy and violent marriage, finding that Meredith committed domestic violence and that it was in the best interest of their daughter, Daliana, to remain with Muriel. Meredith appeals, challenging the family court's domestic violence protection order and its parenting plan that limits his contact with Daliana. Although Meredith raises many issues, only two are properly before us for review.1

¶ 2 In this appeal, we address Meredith's assertions that (1) the order prohibiting Meredith from interfering in Muriel's immigration proceedings violates his First Amendment rights and (2) the family court judge was biased. The record does not support Meredith's bias claim and we affirm the parenting plan. But we remand the domestic violence order to the family court with directions that it be modified to comply with the Supreme Court's decision in In re Marriage of Suggs, 152 Wash.2d 74, 93 P.3d 161 (2004), which prohibits the use of protection orders to restrain lawful speech, and to purge the prior restraint on Meredith's right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse and remand in part.

Facts
Pretrial Developments

¶ 3 In July 2006, Meredith filed for dissolution in Pierce County and sought custody of his then five-month-old daughter, Daliana. The Pierce County family court held two hearings on the matter. During the first hearing, Muriel had not been afforded the opportunity to prepare a defense. The family court placed Daliana in foster care, stating that it was doing so as a cautionary measure. During the second hearing, Muriel presented her own declaration as well as declarations from other witnesses detailing the ongoing abuse she was suffering at Meredith's hands. The family court ordered that Daliana be returned to her mother's care and that any visitation with her father be supervised. It also limited each visit to two hours.

¶ 4 Immediately after the family court ruling, Meredith began yelling and walking quickly toward Muriel. Fearing violence, an attorney intervened and a judicial assistant summoned security. This outburst caused Muriel's attorney concern for Daliana's safety, so she decided to personally oversee the transfer of Daliana to Muriel.

¶ 5 In addition to the conduct described above, during the dissolution proceedings, Meredith tried to intimidate potential witnesses and falsify evidence. For example, Meredith's father financially supported Muriel during the litigation. Meredith responded by threatening to sue his father and telling his father that he intended to sue anyone who filed declarations on Muriel's behalf. Meredith also asked a priest to sign a declaration purportedly authored by the priest. Because the priest did not have input in preparing the declaration, he refused to sign it and told the family court about Meredith's behavior.

¶ 6 On another occasion, Meredith called 911 and took Daliana to a hospital, alleging that Daliana was underweight and that Muriel had been abusing her. Lakewood Police Officer John Neal investigated the allegations. Neal suspected that Meredith had sought medical attention for Daliana only to gain an advantage in litigation. Neal also noted that, during their interview, Meredith flashed his badge, announced that he was an assistant attorney general in Virginia, and said his wife hailed from the murder capital of the world. The police officer, social worker, and physicians who examined Daliana concluded that she was a healthy, happy, normal-weight child who had not been abused.

¶ 7 Meredith again sought custody, alleging that Muriel was promiscuous, sexually perverted and immoral, and that she had abused Daliana. On March 15, 2007, the family court denied Meredith's motion to modify custody. The family court also awarded Muriel her attorney fees. Meredith moved, unsuccessfully, to revise the March 15 order.

¶ 8 At Muriel's request, the family court ordered both parties to submit to mental health examinations under CR 35. The mental health examiner concluded that Meredith was dangerous. Meredith moved again to remove the visitation restrictions but the family court denied his motion.

Trial

¶ 9 Trial on Meredith's petition for dissolution began on October 1, 2007. After hearing extensive testimony and reviewing numerous declarations and exhibits, the family court entered orders in Muriel's favor. Finding that Meredith was not a credible witness and that Muriel was a credible witness, the family court concluded that Meredith had physically and sexually assaulted Muriel, causing great bodily harm or fear of such, and that the pattern of domestic violence could harm Daliana. It also found that Meredith's interest in Daliana was designed to gain control over Muriel and that he had taken several actions, including trying to have Muriel deported while pregnant and falsely reporting that Muriel abused Daliana, that were not in Daliana's best interest. In deciding Daliana's best interests, the family court found that Muriel is a good mother and that Daliana was healthy and well-cared for.

¶ 10 A separate order allowed Muriel to obtain a passport for Daliana and travel with her without Meredith's permission. The parenting plan gave Muriel primary custody and restricted Meredith's contact with Daliana. The family court based this decision on its findings that Meredith committed acts of domestic violence under RCW 26.09.191(1) and (2) and engaged in the abusive use of conflict under RCW 26.09.191(3).

¶ 11 The family court also entered a permanent domestic violence protection order based on its finding that Meredith "committed domestic violence as defined in RCW 26.50.010 and represents a credible threat to the physical safety of [Muriel]." 4 Clerk's Papers (CP) at 616. In addition, the protection order restrained Meredith from

contacting any agency regarding Ms. Muriel's immigration status, including but not limited to the Department of Homeland Security (Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection), the Executive Office of Immigration Review (the immigration court system), or the Department of State. Any contact that Mr. Meredith believes to be necessary must first be approved by this court through the undersigned judge/department.

4 CP at 618.

¶ 12 After the family court entered the orders, Meredith filed a motion demanding that the judge recuse herself from the case because she supported an immigrant rights organization and showed bias toward Muriel. The family court denied this motion and awarded Muriel her attorney fees and costs.

¶ 13 Meredith appeals.2

Analysis
Prohibition on Reporting To Immigration Authorities

¶ 14 Citing only the federal and state constitutions, Meredith asserts that the family court's order prohibiting him from interfering with Muriel's immigration proceedings violates his free speech rights. Again, the order at issue prohibits Meredith from

contacting any agency regarding Ms. Muriel's immigration status, including but not limited to the Department of Homeland Security (Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection), the Executive Office of Immigration Review (the immigration court system), or the Department of State. Any contact that Mr. Meredith believes to be necessary must first be approved by this court through the undersigned judge/department.

4 CP at 618. Although we disagree with Meredith's vitriolic and incendiary language, we agree that the family court's order is an unconstitutional prior restraint on Meredith's federal3 First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

¶ 15 The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the government from interfering with a person's "freedom of speech" and "right ... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." See also United States Const., amend. 14, § 1 (making First Amendment applicable to states). Although the right to free speech and the right to petition are separate guarantees, they are related and generally subject to the same constitutional analysis. Wayte v. United States, 470 U.S. 598, 611 n. 11, 105 S.Ct. 1524, 84 L.Ed.2d 547 (1985) (citing Nat'l Assoc. for the Advancement of Colored People v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 911-15, 102 S.Ct. 3409, 73 L.Ed.2d 1215 (1982)). We address each First Amendment argument in turn.

A. Free Speech

¶ 16 The United States Supreme Court defines prior restraints on free speech as

administrative and judicial orders forbidding certain communications when issued in advance of the time that such communications are to occur. Temporary restraining orders and permanent injunctions— i.e., court orders that actually forbid speech activities — are classic examples of prior restraints.

Suggs, 152 Wash.2d at 81, 93 P.3d 161 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544, 550, 113 S.Ct. 2766, 125 L.Ed.2d 441 (1993)). "Prior restraints carry a heavy presumption of unconstitutionality." Suggs, 152...

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