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Trial court needn’t find “bests interest of the child” when disposing of TPR case

State v. E.F., 2019AP1559-1561, 11/12/19, District 1, (1-judge opinion, ineligible for publication); case activity

The trial court never uttered the words “best interest of the child” at the dispositional phase of this TPR case. No matter, says the court of appeals, “magical” or “talismanic” words aren’t necessary. The trial court’s decision was “infused with articulated concern” for E.F.’s children. That’s enough. Opinion, ¶¶17-18.

The court of appeals added that trial courts could aid appellate review by using the statutory language. But no biggie.  The court of appeals reviews the substance, not the form, of a trial court’s decision. Opinion, ¶20. It then lined the evidence up to §48.426(3)’s 6 factors and found that the trial court here reasonably exercised its discretion in holding that the termination of E.F.’s parental rights was in the best interests of her children (even though the trial court apparently never actually said so). Opinion, ¶¶16-31.

If the court of appeals wants circuit courts to do their job, then it should reverse a few of these decisions. Circuit courts might proceed more carefully. While the oversight may make the court of appeals’ job a little harder, there is a more significant concern at stake: transparency and confidence in the judiciary. When the circuit court doesn’t follow the statute, and the court of appeals basically says “no worries, we’ll take care of that for you” how does that look and feel to the litigant who just lost significant rights (in this case, the parent who just lost her children)?

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Benbow Cheesman November 15, 2019, 11:10 am

    In law school [Wisconsin ’86] I wrote a paper entitiled ” And Hast Thou [Truly] Slain the Jabberwok?’ It examined the practice of six States in which their legislatures wrote such convoluted TPR statutes that their supreme courts had o untangle them. Unfortunately, the courts only made matters worse, not only by using convoluted language that resulted in no clear legal definitions, but, even worse, enshrining the inadaquate decision in precedential language.

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