Parental Rights & Judicial Reform

The issue of parental rights continues to be a battleground in the family law courts of the state of Texas and these situations highlight the critical need for the election of fair and impartial judges who know and apply the law rather than using their position to enforce their personal opinions on families.

In an ongoing Houston divorce case, District Judge Denise Pratt has in effect allowed a back door grandparent access case by a grandfather who is the guardian of his son (the father) who is totally incapacitated.  The fit mother of the medically fragile and very disabled child involved objects to the guardian’s involvement with her child.

In spite of the fact that the grandfather states that he is not seeking grandparent access, the court—without any evidence required by law that the mother is unfit—has ruled that the mother must surrender her child for visitation outside of her custody and over her objections to the grandparents who “supervise” the visitation between the child and his totally incapacitated father and who actually have possession and control of the child during the visits.

As is often the case in grandparent access cases, the grandparents routinely ignore the mother’s instructions of care for the child while the child is in their possession. In fact, the child was injured while in the grandparents’ care during a visit. The judge has also removed a requirement that a nurse be present during the visits and now requires the mother to consult with the grandfather in regard to issues related to the child. It is not a surprise that the grandfather has sought increasing authority over the child, essentially functioning as a co-parent.

The attorneys representing the mother point out in court papers that the provisions of the Texas Probate Code limit the authority of a guardian of the incapacitated person, of the estate, or both. A guardian of the person may only make decisions for his ward’s physical health and well-being (i.e., food, shelter, medical treatment). The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that a guardian of the person may not exercise his ward’s purely personal rights. The powers of the guardian of the estate are even more restricted. Exercising a ward’s parental rights is not among the powers that a guardian of the person or of the estate in Texas may exercise.

The implications of Judge Denise Pratt’s temporary orders are disturbing.  Under the current temporary orders, a private professional guardian of a totally incapacitated father could request and obtain visitation with the child and the father at the guardian’s house, over the mom’s objections.  The mom could be required to confer with that professional guardian (a total stranger) on issues concerning the child.  As absurd as that sounds, especially in light of Troxel, this is the scenario created by Judge Denise Pratt’s current temporary orders.

Why is Judge Denise Pratt in this case making such rulings? As I asked myself that question, I did a little research into this judge and found that criminal complaints have been made against this Houston Judge who is up for reelection in November 2014. In fact, the Houston Chronicle has published a story about the criminal complaint filed against her. The Houston Press ran a story last week noting that 32 attorneys have signed a letter calling on her to resign. The story notes a recent mandamus decision from the Fourteenth Court of Appeals concerning Judge Pratt’s failure to rule on a father’s motion to enforce visitation with his eldest daughter.  As a consequence of Judge Pratt’s failure to rule, the father had not seen his daughter for over a year.  The article notes: “A three-judge panel of the 14th Court of Appeals apparently agreed [with the father’s position]: in their opinion, the judges stated that Pratt hadn’t ruled for more than ten months on a visitation motion, and that “a parent’s right to access to his child is a fundamental liberty interest more precious than property rights.” An ABC affiliate in Houston also did a story on Judge Denise Pratt falsifying court records.

Finally, if all that were not enough, a Houston-area family law attorney has noted that, according to a recent Houston Bar Association Judicial Poll, Judge Denise Pratt’s ratings were the worst that any judge has ever received in the history of the survey. 77% of attorneys rated her poor on following the law and 80% said that she did not rule decisively and timely. Clearly the 311th District Court needs a new judge!

This is not the only case in which we have seen egregious actions by local judges in regard to parental rights and we are working hard with local groups who are vetting local candidates, including judges, as we are in vetting state-wide candidates. This is critical in the efforts to protect and restore parental rights in Texas. We must hold judges accountable at the ballot box.