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Cameroonian appeals Md. termination of parental rights to Supreme Court

A Cameroonian father is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to restore his parental rights that were terminated by a Maryland court he claims had no personal jurisdiction over him because his sole contact with the state was his daughter, who lived in Montgomery County.

In papers filed with the justices this month, the father said Montgomery County Circuit Court violated his constitutional right to due process by ordering the termination despite his absence of even “minimum contacts” with the state. He added through counsel that his daughter’s presence within the Rockville court’s jurisdiction did not give the court authority over him.

The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, which pressed the circuit court to terminate his parental rights, has until Feb. 25 to respond to the father’s request for Supreme Court review of the termination order.

The circuit court asserted jurisdiction over the father based on the Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Enforcement Act, a compact of most U.S. states that is intended to permit local courts to make child custody decisions – including termination – even when a parent has no other contact with that state.

But the father, identified in court papers as I.M., said the UCCJEA deprives out-of-state parents of their right to due process based on a host of Supreme Court decisions that trial courts lack jurisdiction over litigants who have neither personal ties to the state nor have consented to jurisdiction by entering the state.

These decisions, familiar to every law student of the past 35 years, include International Shoe Co. v. Washington, World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson and Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz, stated I.M.s attorney, Stephen B. Mercer. In a fourth case — Kulko v. Superior Court of California — the Supreme Court in 1978 “squarely rejected the notion that a parent’s acquiescence to his child’s presence in a foreign state demonstrated that the parent ‘purposely availed himself’ of the forum state’s laws” or jurisdiction, Mercer added.

The father’s road to the Supreme Court began in 2016 when the mother immigrated legally to the United States and gave birth to the couple’s daughter in Maryland. The father is unable to enter the United States because of what Mercer called the country’s “restrictive immigration policies” that have led to rejected visa requests.

The Montgomery Department of Health and Human Services took custody of the child just days after birth due to the mother’s deteriorating mental health, according to Mercer. The circuit court later deemed the youngster to be a child in need of assistance, and the department subsequently sought to terminate the parents’ parental rights.

The department’s efforts to contact the father in Cameroon were sporadic, advising him only to call the public defender’s office to assert his parental rights, Mercer stated. The department declined to evaluate the father’s parental fitness unless he came to Maryland, an option unavailable to him because of the immigration restriction, added Mercer, of RaquinMercer LLC in Rockville.

The circuit court, over the father’s jurisdictional objection, terminated his parental rights, citing its authority under the UCCJEA and his daughter’s status as a Maryland resident. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the termination in an unreported opinion and the Maryland Court of Appeals declined to hear the father’s appeal in October, prompting his petition for review by the Supreme Court.

“Even though the UCCJEA may authorize a state court with jurisdiction over a child to make a custody determination without having jurisdiction over a parent, a court must still test the statute’s reach against constitutional standards,” Mercer wrote.

“Given that father had no contacts, ties or relations with Maryland and that this (Supreme) Court has previously found that allowing a child to live in a state does not constitute purposeful availment of that state’s benefits and protections, the trial court erroneously exercised jurisdiction over father’s parental rights,” Mercer added. “By terminating father’s rights without appropriate jurisdiction based on the fiction of a (child’s) status determination, the (circuit) court offended the basic notion of fairness required under…the Due Process Clause.”

The Supreme Court has not stated when it will vote on the father’s request for review. The case is docketed at the high court as I.M. v. Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services et al., No. 21-1045.