In a decision that has significant implications for family law in Texas, a majority of the Texas Supreme Court ruled on Sept. 27 that trial court judges may not overturn mediated settlement agreements between parents — even when the judge believes the agreement may not be in the best interest of a child.
The 5-4 ruling in In Re Stephanie Lee resolves one of the high court’s oldest and most difficult cases; it’s a decision many family law practitioners and judges have been anticipating for nearly two years.
The case pits two fundamental family law policies against each other: a trial court’s fealty to the alternative dispute resolution process under of the Texas Family Code §153.0071 and a judge’s duty to decide cases in the best interest of children as mandated under Family Code §153.002.
A majority of the court decided that, in situations where trial court judges are called to make tough choices about whether to overturn a mediated settlement agreement, they must adhere to §153.0071, a law the Texas Legislature passed encouraging parties to resolve their disagreements through mediated settlement agreements (MSAs).
“It is clear that the MSA statute was enacted with the intent that, when parents have agreed that a particular arrangement is in their children’s best interest and have reduced that agreement to a writing complying with section 153.0071, courts must defer to them and their agreement,” wrote Justice Debra Lehrmann. She was joined by Justices Phil Johnson, Don Willett, Eva Guzman and Jeff Boyd for the central parts of her opinion.
“For these reasons, we hold that section 153.0071 (c) encourages parents to peaceably resolve their child-related disputes through mediation by foreclosing a broad best interest inquiry with respect to entry of judgment on properly executed MSAs, ensuring that the time and money spent on mediation will not have been wasted and that the benefits of successful mediation will be realized,” Lehrmann continued.
“Allowing courts to conduct such an inquiry in contravention of the unambiguous statutory mandate in section 153.0071 has severe consequences that will inevitably harm children,” wrote Lehrmann, noting that for children, the conflict associated with protracted litigation is often worse than the conflict that led to their parents’ divorce.
Justice Paul Green wrote a dissent arguing that §153.002, which mandates that judges decide custody disputes in the best interest of children, is the stronger policy interest for the state.
“The Legislature has made the policy of this state clear: ‘The best interest of the child shall always be the primary consideration of the court in determining the issues of conservatorship and possession of and access to the child’ ” Green wrote in a decision, joined by Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justices Nathan Hecht and John Devine.
“I would hold that under Texas Family Law section 153.0071, and the Family Code as a whole, a trial court has discretion to refuse to enter judgment on a modification pursuant to an MSA that could endanger the child’s safety and welfare and is, therefore, not in the child’s best interest. To suggest that the Legislature intended otherwise is, I believe, absurd,” Green wrote.
Justice Eva Guzman wrote a concurring opinion explaining that, while she agreed that §153.0071 precludes a broad best-interest inquiry by a judge in such disputes, that statute “does not preclude an endangerment inquiry.”
“The Court fails to address the endangerment inquiry, but I believe the issue is critical because the facts of this case potentially implicate the inquiry — discussion of which provides much-needed guidance to the trial courts,” Guzman wrote.