Thursday, February 16, 2006
Parental Rights Cannot Be Terminated by Stipulation, C.A. Rules
Court Says Michael Jackson’s Ex-Wife Not Bound by Agreement to Give Children Up ‘Foreve’r
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Public policy precludes a court from terminating a parent’s rights with respect to his or her children solely because he or she and the other parent have so stipulated, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Affirming a trial judge’s ruling on a motion by Deborah Rowe Jackson, the ex-wife of controversial entertainer Michael Jackson, Div. Seven said a stipulation terminating parental rights cannot be approved in the absence of proof that such action is in the children’s best interests.
The couple was married in 1996 and divorced in 2000. At the time of their divorce agreement, in October 1999, they entered into a stipulation that Michael Jackson would have sole custody of Michael Joseph Jackson Jr.—also known as Prince Michael—and Paris Katherine Jackson, with their mother retaining visitation rights. Prince turned nine years old on Monday and Paris is seven.
No More Visits
About six months later, Deborah Jackson stopped visiting the children. She subsequently agreed to relinquish her visitation rights, saying visitation “was not working out for various reasons.”
In October 2001, she moved to terminate the parent-child relationship. In a declaration, she said that her husband was “a wonderful father to the children” who was “doing so well” without her that she wanted “to forever give up any all rights pertaining to the children,” which she said she believed to be the children’s best interests.
Michael Jackson did not attend the motion hearing. His attorney told the judge that he did not oppose the motion, and that counsel was present to “facilitate a record that will allow the motion to be not only granted but enforceable.”
Deborah Jackson testified that she no longer wanted a legal relationship with the children and that she understood all of the ramifications of having parental rights terminated. After questioning Jackson as to whether she realized that she might change her mind and would be unable to do anything about it, and after she responded that she didn’t think her ex-husband was “capable of being a bad father,” the stipulation was approved.
Nation of Islam
More than two years later, however—after Michael Jackson had been charged with child molestation and been publicly linked with the Nation of Islam, which Deborah Jackson and others have accused of anti-Semitism—Deborah Jackson moved to set aside the judgment terminating her parental rights and asked for temporary custody.
The parties agreed to the appointment of retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Lachs, who works for ADR Services and who granted the stipulated order in 2001, to hear the case as a private judge.
After extensive briefing and argument, Lachs ruled that his previous order terminating parental rights was void, but declined to alter the earlier orders on custody and visitation. He concluded that the previous proceeding amounted to a stipulated termination of parental rights and that such a stipulation could not be binding as a matter of public policy.
Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss, writing yesterday for the Court of Appeal, agreed.
“Even if Michael...did not effectively stipulate with Deborah for the termination of her parental rights, the result would be no different if, based solely on Deborah’s uncontested motion to terminate her parental rights, the trial court had granted the requested termination without first ordering an investigation of the children’s circumstances by the Department of Children and Family Services or other appropriate agency...considering appointment of counsel for the children...and actually considering the long-term interest of the children involved,” the presiding justice wrote.
Because the prior order was void, Perluss went on to say, the doctrine of judicial estoppel did not apply, nor was the court required to conduct a harmless-error analysis of Michael Jackson’s contention that his ex-wife’s parental rights would have been terminated at the time even if the court had undertaken an inquiry into the children’s best interests.
Attorneys on appeal were Michael L. Abrams and Thomas Montague Hall for Michael Jackson and Eric M. George and Iris Joan Finsilver for Deborah Jackson.
The case is In re Marriage of Jackson, 06 S.O.S. 787.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company