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Termination of parental rights upheld without meaningful application of standard of review

State v. C.S., 2015AP1345, 10/13/15, District 1 (one-judge opinion, ineligible for publication); case activity

The court of appeals here carefully recites, and then affirms, circuit court findings that the termination of C.S.’s parental rights were in the best interests of her child, M.G. Its analysis, however, displays little regard for the standard of review.

TPR appeals are confidential, so their briefs are not available online. Tor these kinds of cases, it is therefore important for the court of appeals to at least acknowledge the arguments that the appellant claims warrant reversal. Without that information, it is impossible for the public to know whether the court actually engaged with the issues. This opinion is a good example of the problem.

In this case, C.S. challenged the circuit court’s finding that termination of her parental rights was in the “best interests” of her child under §48.426(3). To prevail, C.S. would have to show that the circuit court’s decision was an erroneous exercise of discretion. That is, the court either got the facts wrong, got the law wrong, or applied the law to the facts in an unreasonable way. See Milwaukee Women’s Medical Service, Inc. v. Scheidler, 228 Wis. 2d 514, 524, 598 N.W.2d 588 (Ct App. 1999). Which of those mistakes did C.S. claim that the circuit court made here? It’s hard to tell.

The court of appeals begins by very carefully reciting the circuit court’s findings (but not the record itself) on each of the 6 “best interests of the child” factors and then concludes: “The circuit court thoughtfully and carefully considered the proper factors in Wis. Stat. §48.426(3) before concluding that termination of C.S.’s parental rights was in M.G.’s best interests.” Slip op. ¶13.  That is not quite the standard of review though.

The court of appeals does acknowledge C.S.’s argument that the circuit court should have given greater weight to 3 particular “best interests of the child” factors. Id. But it waives off the challenge with State v. Margaret H., 2000 WI 42,  ¶¶29, 35, 234 Wis. 2d 606, 610 N.W.2d 475. That’s an odd case for the court to cite. Margaret H. reversed a “best interests of the child” finding because the circuit court focused on the mother’s interests, while ignoring the child’s interests.  Judging from the court of appeals opinion, that did not happen here. I

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