Nobles County Attorney argues Minnesota Supreme Court case regarding parental rights
Joseph Sanow appeared before the Minnesota Supreme Court earlier this month.
WORTHINGTON — A case that began in a Nobles County courtroom in July 2021 regarding, in part, the termination of parental rights was heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court earlier this month.
It started with a child protection case involving a newborn baby removed from a mother’s custody after testing positive for drugs.
“Anytime you open a child protection action, we have a responsibility to identify parents,” said Nobles County Attorney Joseph Sanow, who argued the case before the Minnesota Supreme Court. “We do try and keep families together as much as possible.”
Due to some uncertainty over the paternity of the child, a genetic test was ordered and the father was identified with a 99% likelihood. This, Sanow said, was where the case became a bit dicey.
Since the father was not married to the mother when the child was conceived and did not sign the birth certificate, under Minnesota law, there was not a fully-recognized legal parent-and-child relationship. As the biological father, there exists a legal process to establish that relationship, but it was never pursued.
However, Sanow said the assumed biological father in the case had committed an offense that required registration as a predatory offender in Minnesota.
“We decided that he should not be given the opportunity to establish that legal parent-child relationship and possibly try to get custody in the future,” Sanow said. A petition to terminate parental rights was filed. It’s an action that can be taken when certain conditions exist, such as a parent having been convicted of an act that would require them to register as a predatory offender.
The trial was conducted in Nobles County, and the court agreed to terminate the rights of the father. After the fact, the father’s attorney, Travis Smith, filed an appeal raising two issues — first, that there wasn’t a legal basis for terminating the father’s rights under the predatory offender registration statute, and second, that under Minnesota statute his client is not a father.
Predatory offender registration
Under Minnesota statute, a person charged with felony violation and convicted of certain crimes — including murder, kidnapping and criminal sexual conduct, among others — is required to register as a predatory offender. Additionally, if a person is convicted of another offense arising from the same set of circumstances — for instance, a qualifying felony charge is dismissed after a person pleads guilty, but they are convicted of a crime stemming from the same event — they are still required to register.
It’s the stipulation of the same set of circumstances, Sanow explained, that comes into play in this case.
“The biological father was charged with an offense requiring registration, along with other offenses,” Sanow said. “He ultimately pled to an offense that wasn't on any of these lists here, but arose out of the same set of circumstances.”
Because the statute concerning circumstances under which child-parent reunification is not required uses the phrase “an offense” in the section regarding predatory offender registration, Smith argued that only a conviction of the specific offenses, and not the same set of circumstances, would qualify.
This argument was rejected by the Minnesota Court of Appeals and appealed to the State Supreme Court for additional review.
The bigger issue in this case, according to Sanow, is the lack of clarity on who qualifies as a parent.
State statute 260C.007 defines a parent as a person who has a legal parent-and-child relationship with a child which confers or imposes on the person legal rights, privileges, duties and obligations. That same statute outlines the circumstances under which a legal relationship between a father and child exists — circumstances that, Smith argued, don’t exist for his client. Following that same thread, because his client is not a parent as defined by Minnesota Statute, the district court lacked the ability to hear the case.
“The (biological parents) were never married. The father never signed the birth certificate. He never supported this kid at all. He hasn't filed any court proceedings to establish himself as a lawful father,” Sanow said. “So there’s the argument that because none of these (circumstances) exist, he is not a parent.”
It’s an argument that, for Sanow, only holds up on the surface.
For one, a definition of a parent-and-child relationship doesn't actually appear in the chapter associated with the termination of parental rights. The Parentage Act , however, defines the parent and child relationship as the legal relationship existing between a child and the child's biological or adoptive parents.
“I’d argue the legislature intended the term “parent” to have a broader meaning than what Mr. Smith argued for,” Sanow stated.
Again, it comes down to interpretation, and while the court of appeals disagreed with Smith’s argument, the matter is now in the hands of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“The question is, ultimately, how do we define who is a parent for the purposes of a termination of parental rights,” he said, “and the Supreme Court was going to have to reach a conclusion that does not explicitly overrule or cancel any existing law.”
The most direct route Sanow sees, to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the current statutes, would be for the legislature to add more consistency and clarity. In that case, the Minnesota Supreme Court would also have to update its rules of procedure in order to keep consistent definitions.
However, it’s a possibility the court will decide that what the legislature intended does not fall in line with the Nobles County and Court of Appeals decision, or go through an analysis of why rights can be terminated despite the presented parent definition.
“If that’s the route the court chooses to go, the opinion is going to be quite long, and it may be a while before we see it,” said Sanow, “but what comes out of this case, hopefully, is clean direction as to when we can and cannot terminate the parental rights of a father.”