Thursday, July 28, 2005

In Re Iris R. (Cal. Ct. App. - July 25, 2005)

When Iris gets arrested, police officers go to her house and find her children unattended. So the State wants to take away her two kids. Of course, Iris wants to object, and to be present at the hearing so she can try to keep her children. A matter of no small significance to her, obviously. But, of course, Iris is in jail. She hasn't been convicted of a crime yet, mind you, and I think -- if I remember our basic principles correctly -- she is still innocent until proven guilty. But she can't afford to make bail, and so is locked away in a California jail while the state tries to deprive her of her children.

Now, we generally like people to be able to participate in any procedure in which we're depriving them of their liberty -- I think that's called "due process" or something or other -- and taking away your kids counts. So the trial court, very reasonably, orders the state to transport Iris to the various hearings in which they're trying to take away her kids. Which, by the way, we do all the time. Just like we transport prisoners to their own arraignments and trials and sentencings. We sort of think they have a right to participate. And, by the way, that the process is fairer -- and more accurate -- when the person participates.

So everything is fine, right? And, to remind everyone, what the judiciary has done is to issue a court order that Iris be transported to the hearing.

But -- and here's where the case gets bizarre -- everyone in the universe seems to recognize that California has no intention of doing so. Of complying with the court order. Because even as the order is issued, counsel for Iris (and everyone else) admits that transporting Iris to the hearing "isn't going to happen". Why? Because it is apparently California's policy not to transport prisoners to a different county. And here, Iris is in jail in Riverside, but the hearing in which they're trying to take away her kids is in Los Angeles.

Now, as I recall, there are one or two tiny little freeways that do indeed connect these two cities. And, lest we forget, there's an entirely valid court order that compels the state to put Iris on it. But the state, consistent with a longstanding policy evident to pretty much everyone, simply doesn't comply. Apparently, this happens all the time.

So what happens? Does the court issue an OSC re: contempt? No. Does the court grant a continuance? Nope. Instead, the court just goes ahead and holds the hearing in Iris' absence and takes away her kids. And when Iris appeals, Justice Boren affirms. So write a letter from jail saying goodbye to your kids, Iris. Hope you enjoyed your pretrial stay in the clink as we made your children wards of the state. And hope that the kids similarly enjoy their time in a foster home or state institution, wherever the state decides to place them.

Does anyone else have a problem with the result here, or with the blithe way the state consistently refuses to comply with court orders like the one issued here and/or the judicial refusal to do anything about it?

P.S. - Interestingly, the opinion in this case was originally unpublished. Which just goes to show, inter alia, how fine everyone appears to be with both the process and result in this case. But then the Court of Appeal decides to publish the case, and when it does so, it adds a final paragraph to the opinion that's fascinating. A concluding paragraph that expressly mentions the "habitual and willful disobedience of a court order, which the Legislature had mandated the court issue" and which opines that this result "not only undermines a parent's potential statutory and constitutional rights, but fosters disrespect for the judiciary and its lawful orders."

Finally. A recognition that this case actually matters, alongside some strong -- and entirely appropriate -- language. In my mind, just what the doctor ordered.

But how does this paragraph end? What does the court actually do about this problem? Reverse the case? No. Issue an OSC? Nope. Deliver -- at a minimum -- a command that these judicial orders shall be followed in the future. Not at all. Justice Boren instead follows this strong language with a one-sentence plea that the Legislature address the "fiscal concerns among the counties for the expenses incurred in the transportation of prisoners."

In other words, the state deliberately and routinely disobeys court orders in matters involving the state-ordered deprivation of a parent's children for the weighty reason that each county wants the other one to reimburse it for the cost of a 60-minute bus ride. This is the lamest reason I've ever heard. And is entirely inexcusable. And the only thing that Justice Boren is willing to do to back up his strong language to merely say: "Well, okay, but maybe the Legislature can figure out who should pay."

What a crock. The more I think about this case, and how it was handled, the madder I get. I can't fathom why a court would be this weak in the face of such inexcusable, harmful, deliberate, and routine violations of its orders. Just can't fathom it.