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Justices deny Cameroonian’s appeal of Md. termination of parental rights

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a Cameroonian father’s bid 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.

Without comment, the justices let stand the Montgomery County Circuit Court’s termination of the father’s parental rights despite what he called his lack of even “minimum contacts” with Maryland.

The father, identified in court papers as I.M., had argued through counsel that his daughter’s presence within the Rockville court’s jurisdiction did not give the court authority over him.

Attorneys for the daughter and the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, which urged the circuit court to terminate the father’s rights, had chosen not to respond to his request for Supreme Court review unless the justices requested a response. That request never came.

The daughter, identified in court papers at J.T., was represented by Maryland Legal Aid. The Maryland attorney general’s office represented the department.

The case was docketed at the high court as I.M. v. Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services et al., No. 21-1045.

The circuit court had 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 said the UCCJEA deprives out-of-state parents of their constitutional 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 in the father’s unsuccessful petition for high court review.

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 County 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 in the unsuccessful petition.

“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.”