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Family Law No. 06-02-00140-CV, 7/17/2003. Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS: Larry Sessums Jr. appeals an order terminating the parent-child relationship between him and his son, J.D.S. On appeal, Sessums raises eight points of error. Sessums was incarcerated and was not present for the trial. The court only needs to address the first issue: whether the trial court erred in denying Sessums’ request for a bench warrant. HOLDING: Reversed and remanded. In his first point of error, Sessums contends the trial court erred by denying his legitimate request to be present at his termination hearing. Sessums requested a bench warrant in a letter mailed to the trial court on Jan. 10, 2002. In the letter, Sessums stated that he loved J.D.S. and that he “should, at least, have input as to where [J.D.S.] is placed for the time being.” In the same letter, however, Sessums also requested to be “physically present” at “any and all proceedings” concerning J.D.S. On Jan.y 17, 2002, an annotation written on Sessums’ letter indicates the trial court denied Sessums’ request for a bench warrant. No explanation for the denial was given. The Department contends Sessums’ letter was not a valid request to be present at his termination hearing. Rather, the Department insists Sessums wrote the Jan. 10, 2002, letter in anticipation of a permanency hearing scheduled for Feb. 1, 2002. The Department contends that this interpretation of the letter is supported by: 1. the fact that Sessums’ letter contained a “Power of Attorney” in which he ostensibly conferred on Jessica McElroy the authority to represent him in all things concerning the custody, care, and well-being of J.D.S.; and 2. that, in his letter, Sessums stated he wanted to be present in order to provide input on where J.D.S. would be placed “for the time being.” Even if the Department is correct that Sessums wrote his letter in anticipation of the Feb. 1, 2002, hearing, the letter also contained a request to be physically present at “any and all proceedings” involving J.D.S. The court interprets this as a valid request to be present at his termination hearing. The parent-child relationship is recognized and protected by law to such a degree that it is of federal constitutional dimensions. The termination of parental rights is final and ends all legal ties between the parent and child, except the child’s right of inheritance. Because termination of parental rights is such a drastic remedy and is of such weight and gravity, due process requires the petitioner to justify termination by a heightened burden of proof of “clear and convincing evidence.” Appellate courts must carefully scrutinize judgments terminating the parent-child relationship because of the importance of the relationship. The absence of a parent at the trial to terminate his or her parental rights is prejudicial to the parent. The parent’s absence could leave the fact-finder with the impression that the proceeding is not important to the parent. Furthermore, because of the obvious negative connotations associated with a parent who is incarcerated, it is important for the fact-finder to witness the demeanor and credibility of the parent. In short, the presence, or nonpresence, of the parent in the courtroom at his or her termination hearing is vital to the fact-finder’s decision to terminate a parent’s rights to his or her child. Having concluded Sessums made a valid request to be present at his termination hearing, the court reviews the trial court’s decision to deny his request for an abuse of discretion. A prisoner has a constitutional right of access to the courts and may not be denied access merely because he is an inmate. But the right of access is not absolute; it is a qualified right. In determining whether an inmate should personally attend civil court proceedings, the trial court must balance the interest of the state in preserving the integrity of the correctional system with the inmate’s interest in access to the courts with a goal of achieving a balance that is fundamentally fair. Factors to consider in weighing these two interests include, but are not limited t 1. the cost and inconvenience of transporting the inmate; 2. the security risk presented by the inmate; 3. the substance of the matter; 4. the need for witnessing the inmate’s demeanor; 5. whether the trial is before the jury or judge; and 6. the possibility of delaying trial until the inmate is released. Acting on a request by summarily denying the request without weighing the state’s interest against an inmate’s interest is also an abuse of discretion. Because Sessums’ right to be present during court proceedings was a qualified right, the trial court should have weighed the relevant factors and had a reason for denying a bench warrant before it decided not to allow him to participate in person at the hearing. The record does not show that the trial court considered any relevant factors, but rather merely denied Sessums’ request. The trial court’s decision not to weigh any relevant factors was an abuse of discretion. Sessums’ first point of error is sustained, and the judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded to the trial court for a new trial. OPINION: Carter, J.; Morriss, C.J., Ross and Carter, JJ.

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