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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides two today

In In the Matter of J.K., A Child in Need of Services: M.K. v. Marion County Department of Child Services and Child Advocates, Inc., an 8-page, 5-0 opinion, Chief Justice Rush writes:

Every Child in Need of Services (CHINS) proceeding has the potential to interfere with parents’ rights in the upbringing of their children—and so the parents’ due process rights, including the right to an unbiased and uncoercive forum, are paramount. But the judicial conduct in this case deprived Father of those rights. After making several derogatory remarks over the course of two hearings about the parties and the nature of their dispute, the trial court pressured Father to waive his right to a fact-finding hearing and instead admit that his daughter was a CHINS. Though Father did not object to the trial court’s statements, their combined effect was sufficiently coercive to constitute fundamental error. We therefore reverse the CHINS adjudication. * * *

From the first few minutes of the hearing, the court expressed impatience—responding to the parties’ discussion of the potential overlap between custody in the divorce and placement in the CHINS case by commenting, “My hair hurts.”

Minutes after that, Father proposed placement in his home as “possibly . . . a solution” to that overlap. But Mother objected (and J.K. confirmed) that Father had prevented J.K. from contacting Mother during previous times J.K. had stayed with him. When Father replied to express willing-ness to permit communication and establish a parenting-time schedule, the court interjected, “Just for giggles, how does this affect the CHINS? All I want to know is does he admit or are we trying it? I don’t want the divorce either. It’s not my job.” When Father’s counsel reiterated that he did not admit J.K. was a CHINS, the trial court interrupted, “Then . . . call your first witness.” It then went on to call the parties’ dispute “ridiculous and retarded,” fault the parties for “stupidity,” and continue the hearing to a new date to order the parties into mediation: [ILB - to continue reading, start at the end of p. 2] * * *

Here, the prejudicial effect of the statements compounded with repetition through two hearings. Moreover, the court’s repeated implication of being unreceptive and hostile to the parties came to a head when it told Father, “If I were you I’d waive fact-finding” or else “find your butt finding a new job,” unless he wanted to “play that game” of having a contested hearing. The cumulative effect of the trial court’s comments and demeanor had a direct impact on Father accepting the court’s leading suggestion to “waive fact-finding.” Such coercion is fundamental error, and we reverse J.K.’s adjudication as a CHINS accordingly.

Conclusion. Because the trial court’s remarks and conduct, in their cumulative effect, breached the court’s duty of impartiality and amounted to coercion of Father, we reverse the CHINS adjudication.

Dickson, Rucker, and David, JJ.,concur.
Massa, J., concurs in result.

[ILB: This case (J.K.) was an appeal from the Marion Superior Court, No. 49D09-1305-JC-16154 The Honorable Marilyn A. Moores, Judge. The Court of Appeals affirmed.]

In Daniel Lee Pierce v. State of Indiana, an 18-page 5-0 opinion, including a brief, separate "concurring in result" opinion, Justice Massa writes:

Daniel Pierce appeals his convictions for molesting his three young granddaughters, arguing he was entitled to separate trials on the allegations of each individual victim. We are asked to decide whether his offenses were joined not only for being “of the same or similar character” but also because they were based “on a series of acts connected together” under Indiana Code section 35-34-1-9(a)(2). Because we find Pierce’s abuse of girls in his care was sufficiently connected, we hold he is not entitled to new and separate trials. We affirm Pierce’s convictions, and we remand only for the purpose of resentencing on one count. * * *

Rush, C.J., and David, J., concur.
Rucker, J., concurs in result with separate opinion in which Dickson, J., concurs. [It reads in part] I continue to believe, however, “our traditional approach in resolving claims of severance fails to provide meaningful guidance to either the bench or the bar, and thus lends itself to inconsistent results, even where the facts are very similar.” * * * We would be well-advised to provide greater clarity to an area of the law that remains in a state of confusion.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 12, 2015 02:52 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions