Unmarried Parents Get Equal Protection for New Hampshire Appeals

Miller v. Todd, a parenting case between two parties who were never married, raised the issue of whether Supreme Court Rule 3 is unconstitutional because it treats married and unmarried parents differently for the purposes of an appeal. At the time, only parents who were married were entitled to a mandatory appeal from an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities. A mandatory appeal provides that the case “shall be accepted by the supreme court for review on the merits.” Although an appeal from a final divorce decree or final decree on legal separation is a mandatory appeal, an initial determination of parental rights and responsibilities between unmarried parents was not.

In Miller v. Todd the Supreme Court declined to address the issue by declaring it moot. In other words, because the Supreme Court had accepted the father’s discretionary appeal for review, the issue was purely academic because he had not been harmed by having his appeal declined. The Court noted, however, that “any consideration regarding amending Rule 3 should be accomplished in accordance with the rule-making procedures set forth in Supreme Court Rule 51, thereby providing the public, the bench and the bar an opportunity to offer comments and suggestions.”

On April 4, 2014, the Supreme Court adopted new rules, including an amendment to Supreme Court Rule 3 that now provides a mandatory appeal for “the first final order issued in, or arising out of, a domestic relations matter filed under RSA Title XLIII (RSA chapters 457 to 461-A).” The comments to the new rules identify the change results from the claim raised in Miller v. Todd that “providing for mandatory review of appeals involving married parents but discretionary review of appeals involving non-married parents raises constitutional concerns."

Thompson v. D'Errico: Order your transcript for your appeal!

The Facts

            The plaintiff, Linda Thompson, filed a domestic violence petition against the defendant, Christopher D’Errico requesting an order of protection. After an evidentiary hearing, the Court issued a final order of protection, and made findings that the defendant had on a daily basis sent text messages to the plaintiff using “extraordinarily foul language”, that the defendant had made reference to a having a loaded shotgun, and that a family friend had to interfere to stop the defendant from putting his hands around the plaintiff neck. The defendant moved for reconsideration, arguing that the evidence did not support a finding that he posed a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety. The trial court conducted a further hearing, and issued an order detailing the text messages sent by the defendant at extremely inconvenient hours, using such language as “bills asshole die bitch,” sent in the days leading up to the filing of the domestic violence petition. The court found these texts to be a “credible present threat, considering the defendant’s previous threat of the loaded shotgun and the defendant’s previous attempt to put his hands around the plaintiff’s neck.”

The Appeal

The defendant appealed the order, arguing that:

(1) his non-threatening foul language is protected by the First Amendment;

(2) there is no evidence to support the plaintiff’s allegations against him;

(3) the text messages might have been sent by a third party having access to his phone;

(4) the trial court erred by admitting evidence of certain text messages; and

(5) the evidence does not support the finding of a credible present threat to the plaintiff’s   safety. 

The Holding

            The evidence supported a finding of a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety. The Supreme Court came to this conclusion because the defendant, who was the appealing party, failed to provide a transcript, and absent a transcript, the court must assume that the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s ruling. The court refused to consider other questions presented on appeal for this same reason, finding that the defendant had failed to demonstrate that he had preserved issues for appeal without a transcript evidencing his objections to evidence.

            The First Amendment does not protect the defendant’s non-threatening foul language because the definition of harassment, which requires repeated communications with offensively coarse language that is made with the purpose to annoy or alarm, is narrowly tailored to the illegal communication it seeks to prevent.

The Takeaway

            Provide a transcript for your appeal. The transcript is the written record of what happened during your hearing or trial. Without a transcript, the Supreme Court has no way of knowing whether you brought an issue to the attention of the trial court for consideration. For example, did you object when the other side submitted a tax return to the judge? If your appeal alleges that the trial court improperly allowed the tax return into evidence, the Supreme Court needs to confrim that you objected and preserved that issue for their review. Similarly, without a transcript, the Supreme Court must assume that the conclusions or findings reached by the trial court were supported by the evidence. In this case, the defendant failed to provide a transcript, and many of his arguments brought before the Supreme Court, including whether the trial court had sufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that he presented a credible threat to the plaintiff’s safety, failed for that reason. The results might have been different if he had ordered and paid for the transcript.

            As the Occupy Wall Street movement recently learned, free speech as limits. The statute defining harassment requires a repeated course of conduct, where communication occurs at extremely inconvenient hours or with extremely coarse language. The calls must also be made with the purpose to annoy or alarm. Harassment cannot be conjured from a single call made to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Here, the defendant sent repeated texts, at inconvenient hours, and with extremely coarse language. The texts were clearly designed the alarm the plaintiff, rather than expressive conduct made for a legitimate purpose. This communication is the exact type of illegal behavior the statute is designed to prevent.

Appeal in the New Hampshire homeschooling case: Kurowski & Voydatch

Back in September 2009, the so-called New Hampshire homeschooling case (In the Matter of Martin Kurowski and Brenda Voydatch) grabbed national headlines when the court ordered the parties’ child to attend public school instead of continuing with home schooling. Home school supporters decried the decision, arguing that the order trampled the mother’s constitutional rights to raise and educate her child as she saw fit. The problem with that line of thinking is that it fails to acknowledge that the child has two parents, not one. As an equal decision maker, the father has rights too. When the parents could not agree on matters of education and religion, the family court decided.

The case is currently on appeal at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and headed to oral arguments on January 6, 2011 at 9:00 am. The parties have submitted their briefs, including an Amicus Curiae brief from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).  

The mother, through her attorney John Simmons, filed an appeal and brief with the New Hampshire Supreme Court, asking the court to consider the following questions:

 

  • Whether the trial court erred in modifying a parenting plan, to order a home schooled child to attend public school, by considering the “best interests of the child”, where none of the statutory circumstances permitting modification, as set forth in RSA 461-A:11, were present, and the court made such finding.
  •  Whether the trial court erroneously concluded that it was in the best interests of a home-schooled child to be sent to public school where the court’s decision was based on its own definition of the purpose of education that was unsupported by RSA 461-A:6,I or by any other law.
  •  Whether the trial court’s decision should be reversed because it committed plain error in relying on the opinion testimony of a guardian ad litem who was not qualified as an expert and who’s opinion was not based on a rational perception within the meaning of Rule 701 of the New Hampshire Rules of Evidence.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school to expose her to diverse points of view was erroneous because it violated the fundamental parental right to control a child’s education guaranteed by the United States Constitution, where the evidence showed that the child was already getting a superior education and the State’s purported goal could be achieved by a less restrictive means.
  •  Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school because she was too rigid in her religious beliefs was erroneous because it interfered with the child’s right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • Whether the trial court’s order that a home schooled child attend public school should be reversed because it relief on the testimony of a guardian ad litem who was biased against the religion practiced by the child and her mother.

The father, through his attorney Joshua Gordon, submitted a reply brief. HSLDA submitted an amicus curiae brief. Stay tuned for a blog post reviewing the arguments and briefs.