Must a wife obey her husband? Is it in the Bible? Does it make a difference if one believes it to be true or not true in a custody dispute? Does giving a child a cell phone make you a bad parent unworthy of joint custody? In a strange unpublished Minn. Court of Appeals case, the Court discusses all of these issues… and more.

On March 25, 2013, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision spanning 30 pages along with a 24 page concurrence and dissent in a family law case which covered custody determinations, religious differences in parenting and the impact of such religious beliefs on custody, evidence, child support, spousal maintenance, property division, business assets vs. marital assets, marital vs. non-marital property, imputed income for a parent who stayed home to care for children and attorney’s fees. While unpublished, it provides a comprehensive summary of the important cases addressing many of the issues a family law matter might include.

Along with the myriad of issues, the decision includes portions of the trial testimony which are fascinating because the district court judge and counsel discuss topics ranging from the Bible to the vows taken at marriage for a wife to obey her husband, to the appropriate age a child should have a cell phone.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling on custody but reversed its decision on financial matters. Judge Ross writes a 24 page dissent which claims neither the District Court, nor his fellow Appellate Court Judges had the authority to make the decisions they made. More than anything, this may be a good example of how very knowledgeable and experienced people can come up with vastly different results in litigation.

In his dissent, Judge Ross states:

“I see nothing in the caselaw discussion of “discretion” that either permits the district court to decide statutory factors based on clearly erroneous findings or prohibits this court from reversing a custody award in that circumstance. The legal question is simply this: although the district court has broad discretion to weigh evidence, does it have discretion to declare the nonexistence of existing evidence and then avoid weighing it at all? The answer should be no.”

The pro se Appellant accused the District Court of bias. The wife argued that the husband held a religious belief that all husbands should control the family and their wives and the wife believed that philosophy was detrimental to the children. The District Judge interjected during the trial that she believed the Bible makes such a direction, after which counsel, the parties, and the judge discussed the origination of the vow and the judge shared her own philosophy on it.

The District Judge commented on her own personal experience that she took the vow to obey her husband and then ignored it for the rest of her life. The parties had a dispute over the appropriateness of a child having a cell phone and the Judge interjected that she her own child has a cell phone and she believes it is appropriate for a child to have a cell phone.

The dissent cites

“I am sure the legislature never imagined that a parent’s restriction of his child’s use of a phone would be implicitly support a statutory factor denying that parent’s request for joint physical custody and sharply limiting his parenting time. But my primary concern is that the judge invited doubt about her objectivity by sua sponte interjecting her own family experience as a comparison on an issue that the parties and the court rightly or wrongly treated as relevant to the custody decision. Adam perceives bias and declares that “[the] [t]rial Court condemns the Appellant’s parenting style.” He seems right.

By announcing her own marital decision (about the contested biblical passage) and then her own parenting decision (about the contested cell-phone restriction), the judge implied that she had aligned herself with Sarah against Adam on the two most debated issues in the parties’ custody trial.”

The entire opinion makes for interesting reading.

To read the case in its entirety go to:  http://mn.gov/lawlib/archive/ctapun/1303/opa120213-032513.pdf

Minn. Court of Appeals No. A12-213

In re the Marriage of: Sarah Peterson, petitioner, Respondent, vs. Adam Thomas Peterson, Appellant.

Comments are closed.