June 01, 2016

Father Lacked Right to Jury Trial in Termination of Parental Rights Proceeding

Eva J. Klain

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In re M.F., 2016 WL 1261356 (Nev.).

The trial court did not violate father’s due process rights by denying his demand for a jury trial in a termination of parental rights proceeding. Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Nevada Constitution guarantees a right to a jury trial in such proceedings. Furthermore, substantial evidence supported the trial court’s findings that termination of father’s parental rights was in children’s best interests.

The child welfare agency removed Jesus F.’s six children from his home due to drug use, safety concerns, and inadequate supervision. All six children were placed in protective custody in various out-of-home placements over the next four years. By the time the three older children reached the age of majority, the agency filed a petition to terminate the father’s parental rights to the three minor children.

The trial court denied the father’s demand for a jury trial, concluding the right to a jury trial in a parental termination proceeding is not guaranteed by common law, statute, or the Nevada Constitution. Following a bench trial, the trial court terminated the father’s parental rights. On appeal, the father argued the trial court erred in denying his demand for a jury trial, concluding it was in the minor children’s best interests to terminate his parental rights, and concluding that parental fault had been established.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the due process rights of parents in termination proceedings, it has not addressed whether due process requires a jury trial. Because parents have a vital interest in preventing the dissolution of their family, due process requires states to provide parents with fundamentally fair procedures in parental termination proceedings. 

To evaluate whether a proceeding violates a parent’s due process rights, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the balancing test outlined in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976), which weighs the private interest affected by the proceeding, the risk of error inherent in the state’s procedure, and the countervailing government interest. Because the father did not risk a loss of personal liberty in the termination proceeding, the court applied the Eldridge test to balance his interest in the companionship, care, and custody of his three children against the state’s interest in the welfare of the children, conservation of judicial resources, and the need for an accurate and fair outcome. 

Because both parties had compelling interests, the court’s analysis focused on the risk that the procedures used would have resulted in an erroneous decision. It concluded the trial court’s decision to hold a bench trial as opposed to a jury trial posed only a minimal risk of an erroneous decision. A jury is not a required component of accurate fact-finding; the judge demonstrated familiarity with the rules of evidence and civil procedure as well as the legal standards of a termination action; and the court applied the clear and convincing standard of proof. The father was given notice of the proceeding, was provided competent counsel, and had the opportunity to confront and cross-examine the witnesses against him. He also retained the right to appeal from an adverse decision. 

Furthermore, the court found the Nevada constitution similarly did not guarantee a right to a jury trial in termination proceedings. No termination of parental rights proceedings existed at the time of adoption of the state constitution in 1864, and since creation of termination actions in 1975, the legislature has not conferred the right to a jury trial in such proceedings despite the opportunity to do so. The court found support from other jurisdictions for this conclusion, noting most states specifically prohibit a jury trial in termination of parental rights proceedings.

Finally, the supreme court found substantial evidence supported the findings that termination of parental rights was in the children’s best interests based on statutory presumptions for a child who has lived outside the home for 14 of any consecutive 20 months and the father’s failure to rebut the presumption because he could not show there was a reasonable possibility that he could provide for the minor children’s basic needs in a reasonable timeframe. Furthermore, substantial evidence supported the trial court’s findings on five separate grounds of parental fault and the court listed its reasoning with adequate specificity.