In re Sanders

Citation495 Mich. 394,852 N.W.2d 524
Decision Date02 June 2014
Docket NumberCalendar No. 6.,Docket No. 146680.
PartiesIn re SANDERS.
CourtSupreme Court of Michigan

495 Mich. 394
852 N.W.2d 524


Docket No. 146680.
Calendar No. 6.

Supreme Court of Michigan.

Argued Nov. 7, 2013.
Decided June 2, 2014.

[852 N.W.2d 527]

Jerard M. Jarzynka, Prosecuting Attorney, and Jerrold Schrotenboer, Chief Appellate Attorney, for the Department of Human Services.

Vivek S. Sankaran and Joshua B. Kay, for Lance Laird.

William Ladd and Deborah Paruch, Detroit, for the Juvenile Appellate Clinic of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

David S. Leyton and Terrence E. Dean, for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, Detroit (by Robert M. Riley), for the National Association of Counsel for Children.

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, Bloomfield Hills (by Beth J. Kerwin), for the Legal Services Association of Michigan and the Michigan State Planning Body for the Delivery of Legal Services to the Poor.

Legal Services of South Central Michigan, Ann Arbor (by Ann L. Routt), for the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Elizabeth Warner, for the Children's Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan.

Opinion of the Court


At issue in this case is the constitutionality of Michigan's one-parent doctrine. The one-parent doctrine permits a court to interfere with a parent's right to direct the care, custody, and control of the children solely because the other parent is unfit, without any determination that he or she is also unfit. In other words, the one-parent doctrine essentially imposes joint and several liability on both parents, potentially divesting either of custody, on the basis of the unfitness of one. Merely describing the doctrine foreshadows its constitutional weakness.

In the case before us, upon petition by the Department of Human Services (DHS), the trial court adjudicated respondent-mother, Tammy Sanders, as unfit but dismissed the allegations of abuse and neglect against respondent-appellant-father, Lance Laird. Laird moved for his children to be placed with him. Although Laird was never adjudicated as unfit, the trial court denied Laird's motion, limited his contact with his children, and ordered him to comply with a service plan. In justifying its orders, the court relied on the one-parent doctrine and the Court of Appeals' decision in In re CR, 250 Mich.App. 185, 646 N.W.2d 506 (2002), from which that doctrine derives.

Laird believes that the one-parent doctrine violates his fundamental right to direct the care, custody, and control of his children because it permits the court to enter dispositional orders affecting that right without first determining that he is an unfit parent. We agree. Because application of the one-parent doctrine impermissibly infringes the fundamental rights of unadjudicated parents without providing adequate process, we hold that it is unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Laird is the father of two boys: P, born in 2010, and C, born in 2011. Sanders is the boys' mother. Four days after C was born drug positive, the Jackson Circuit Court, acting on a petition filed by the

[852 N.W.2d 528]

DHS, removed C from Sanders's custody and placed the child with Laird. At that time, P was also in Laird's custody.

Several weeks later, the DHS filed an amended petition alleging that Laird had tested positive for cocaine, that Sanders had admitted “getting high” with Laird, and that Sanders had spent the night at Laird's home despite a court order that prohibited her from having unsupervised contact with the children. At a November 16, 2011 preliminary hearing, the court removed the children from Laird's custody and placed them in the custody of the DHS.1 Laird contested the allegations in the amended petition and requested an adjudication with respect to his fitness as a parent.

On February 7, 2012, Sanders pleaded no contest to the allegations of neglect and abuse in the amended petition. Laird declined to enter a plea and instead repeated his demand for an adjudication. Laird also moved to change the children's temporary placement from their paternal aunt to the children's paternal grandmother, with whom Laird then resided. The court conducted a placement hearing at which several witnesses, including Laird, testified. Laird admitted that he had allowed Sanders to spend one night at his house after the court removed the children from her custody. Laird claimed, however, that the children never saw Sanders that night. Laird also testified that he was on probation stemming from a domestic violence conviction. The court took the placement motion under advisement and maintained placement of the children with their aunt pending Laird's adjudication, which was scheduled for May 1, 2012.

A few weeks later, on April 18, 2012, the DHS dismissed the remaining allegations against Laird, and Laird's adjudication was cancelled. At a May 2, 2012 review hearing, the court ordered Laird to comply with services, including parenting classes, a substance-abuse assessment, counseling, and a psychological evaluation. Laird's contact with his children was restricted to supervised parenting time, and placement of the children continued with their aunt. On August 22, 2012, Laird moved for immediate placement of the children with him. Laird argued that the court had no legal authority to condition the placement of his children on his compliance with a service plan because he had not been adjudicated as unfit. The court, relying on the Court of Appeals' decision in CR, denied the motion.

Laird's application for interlocutory leave to appeal in the Court of Appeals was denied for lack of merit. In re Sanders Minors, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered January 18, 2013 (Docket No. 313385). This Court granted leave to appeal to address “whether the application of the one-parent doctrine violates the due process or equal protection rights of unadjudicated parents.” In re Sanders, 493 Mich. 959, 828 N.W.2d 391 (2013).2


Whether child protective proceedings complied with a parent's right to

[852 N.W.2d 529]

procedural due process presents a question of constitutional law, which we review de novo. In re Rood, 483 Mich. 73, 91, 763 N.W.2d 587 (2009) (opinion by Corrigan, J.). The interpretation and application of statutes and court rules are also reviewed de novo. In re Mason, 486 Mich. 142, 152, 782 N.W.2d 747 (2010). Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and we have a duty to construe a statute as constitutional unless its unconstitutionality is clearly apparent. Taylor v. Gate Pharm., 468 Mich. 1, 6, 658 N.W.2d 127 (2003). We interpret court rules using the same principles that govern statutory interpretation. Haliw v. Sterling Hts., 471 Mich. 700, 704, 691 N.W.2d 753 (2005).


A brief review of the court rules and statutes governing child protective proceedings is helpful here. The juvenile code, MCL 712A.1 et seq., establishes procedures by which the state can exercise its parens patriae authority over minors. These procedures are reflected in Subchapter 3.900 of the Michigan Court Rules. In Michigan, child protective proceedings comprise two phases: the adjudicative phase and the dispositional phase. See In re Brock, 442 Mich. 101, 108, 499 N.W.2d 752 (1993). Generally, a court determines whether it can take jurisdiction over the child in the first place during the adjudicative phase. Id. Once the court has jurisdiction, it determines during the dispositional phase what course of action will ensure the child's safety and well-being. Id.

The court's authority to conduct those proceedings is found at MCL 712A.2(b), which encompasses child protective proceedings generally. The first subsection of that statute provides the court with jurisdiction over a child in cases of parental abuse or neglect. MCL 712A.2(b)(1) (providing for jurisdiction over a juvenile whose parent “neglects or refuses to provide proper or necessary support, education, medical, surgical, or other care necessary for his or her health or morals”). To initiate a child protective proceeding, the state must file in the family division of the circuit court a petition containing facts that constitute an offense against the child under the juvenile code (i.e., MCL 712A.2(b)). MCL 712A.13a(2); MCR 3.961.3 If the court authorizes the petition, the court may release the child to a parent, MCR 3.965(B)(12)(a), or, if the court finds that returning the child to the home would be contrary to the child's welfare, order that the child be temporarily placed in foster care, MCR 3.965(B)(12)(b) and (C). The respondent parent can either admit the allegations in the petition or plead no contest to them. MCR 3.971. Alternatively, the respondent may demand a trial (i.e., an adjudication) and contest the merits of the petition. MCR 3.972. If a trial is held, the respondent is entitled to a jury, MCR 3.911(A), the rules of evidence generally apply, MCR 3.972(C), and the petitioner has the burden of proving by

[852 N.W.2d 530]

a preponderance of the evidence one or more of the statutory grounds for jurisdiction alleged in the petition, MCR 3.972(E). When the petition contains allegations of abuse or neglect against a parent, MCL 712A.2(b)(1), and those allegations are proved by a plea or at the trial, the adjudicated parent is unfit. While the adjudicative phase is only the first step in child protective proceedings, it is of critical importance because “[t]he procedures used in adjudicative hearings protect the parents from the risk of erroneous deprivation” of their parental rights. Brock, 442 Mich. at 111, 499 N.W.2d 752.

Once a court assumes jurisdiction over a child, the parties enter the dispositional phase. Unlike the adjudicative phase, here the rules of evidence do not apply, MCR 3.973(E), and the respondent is not entitled to a jury determination of facts, MCR 3.911(A)....

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