• July 12, 2011

Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear a particular type of case.  It is a vital concept, as a court without subject matter jurisdiction has no power to render a valid decision in a matter.  Recently, the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed the question of whether Minnesota courts have subject matter jurisdiction over proceedings to terminate parental rights to children in the state who are not United States citizens.

D.M.T.-R. had four children, D.R., M.R., and twins A.C.-T. and A.C.-T.,  ranging in age from 2 to 7 years old as well as a 17-year-old son, P.A.O., who has been in foster care since 2008.  D.R., M.R., and P.A.O. are not U.S. citizens.  They reside in the United States on refugee status and their father is believed to be incarcerated in Honduras.  The twins were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.  Their putative father has been removed from the country.

After receiving reports of abusive behavior by D.M.T.-R., Kandihohi County petitioned the district court to declare D.R., M.R., and the twins children in need of protection or services (CHIPS).  The district court granted the CHIPS petition and placed the children under the custody and control of the county.  D.M.T.-R. later pleaded guilty to malicious punishment of a child and aggravated forgery and was removed from the United States to Honduras.

The county contacted the Honduran Consulate as well as relatives of the children in the United States and Honduras, but was unable to find a suitable placement for the children.  In June 2010, the county filed a termination-of-parental-rights (TPR) petition to terminate D.M.T.-R.’s parental rights to D.R., M.R., and the twins.  Following a hearing, the district court granted the petition.  D.R.T.-R. appealed, arguing that the court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over D.R. and M.R. because they are not U.S. citizens and federal courts have exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over international child-custody matters.

The Court of Appeals began by noting that Minnesota district courts generally have original and exclusive jurisdiction in CHIPS and TPR proceedings involving children who are present in the state, regardless of the child’s legal residency.  In addition, the Uniform Child Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) confers subject-matter jurisdiction to Minnesota district courts when rendering “an initial child custody determination” if Minnesota is the child’s “home state.” The UCCJEA also provides that the court making the initial determination has continuing, exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over the child-custody proceedings.  Determinations made in CHIPS and TPR proceedings are “child custody determinations” under the UCCJEA and a foreign country is treated as if it were a state of the United States for purposes of applying the general and jurisdictional provisions of the Act.  Because Minnesota was the “home state” of the children, the UCCJEA thus granted the Minnesota district courts subject-matter jurisdiction to terminate D.M.T.-R.’s parental rights to D.R. and M.R.

The court also noted that federal courts generally refrain from deciding child-custody matters based on policy considerations.  Moreover, federal immigration law recognizes state-court jurisdiction over the care and custody of juveniles who are not U.S. citizens.  Accordingly, the court held that the district court had original and continuing jurisdiction to terminate D.M.T.-R.’s parental rights to D.R. and M.R. regardless of the children’s citizenship.

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