Just last month, I read an article in the Austin American Statesman about a case in the 309th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas in which the trial court refused to approve a mediated settlement agreement because it was not in the best interests of the child:
The girl’s father, Benjamin Redus, admits that he signed a binding custody agreement that normally could not be rejected.
But during a routine hearing to enter the agreement into the court record last year, Redus instead asked the judge to intervene, saying he no longer felt comfortable with a document that allowed weekend visits between his daughter and ex-wife. Explaining his change of mind, Redus said his ex-wife’s new husband, a registered sex offender, had slept “naked in bed with my daughter between them.”
Appalled, the associate judge refused to enter the agreement, leading to a hearing by state District Judge Sheri Dean, who also rejected the document, saying it was not in the girl’s best interest.
The girl’s mother, Stephanie Lee, appealed Dean’s ruling, arguing that the judge had only one option — to approve the agreement, regardless of concern for a child’s safety — because it was hammered out in a daylong session with a mediator.
Set aside for a moment your anger at the father for agreeing to such an arrangement to begin with. That is not the point of this post. Instead, the very judicial review of the best interests of the child is at stake in this case.
There is long standing case precedent giving trial court’s the ultimate ability to reject agreements between parents which do not appear to be in the best interests of a child. While this is an extreme example of such an agreement, courts frequently exercise this power in a variety of circumstances, such as rejecting obviously problematic custody arrangements or rejecting child support calculations which clearly benefit the parents but not the child.
While I don’t think there is any real danger of this judicial power being eliminated entirely, I am hopeful that the Supreme Court of Texas does not find a way to carve out the trial court’s power in a particular instance as a result of this case. The trial court ought to always have the ability to review agreements and determine the best interests of the child.
For those particularly interested in a good summary of the law behind my reasoning, I defer to Clint Lawson’s short but informative brief submitted to the Supreme Court of Texas.