I've been critical of Rick Casey in the past, but give the man his due: when he's good, he's good. Today he talks to an unnamed judge, who gives us some color commentary on the strange Heflin custody case. The highlights:
One widely respected judge — let's call him Judge X — says he has handled many cases similar to the efforts by Talmadge Heflin and his wife to get custody of the 20-month-old son of Miriam Katamba, a native of Uganda who lived with the Heflins and accepted their help in taking care of the baby.
Judge X said the typical case, though, has two major differences.
One is that the older people trying to get custody are the grandparents of the child.
The other is that these grandparents are not among the most politically powerful in the state — a distinction Talmadge Heflin holds as chairman of the Texas House Appropriations Committee.
"This situation is very, very common with grandparents," said Judge X. "Their daughter becomes a single mother. She moves back in with her parents, and they help with the baby while she finishes school or gets on her feet.
"After a few years she wants the baby back to go out on her own, and they end up at the courthouse."
The first thing to note is that after examining the facts of the case, Judge X probably would have thrown it out by denying the Heflins standing.
Only certain people have the right to sue for custody under Texas law, and grandparents are not among them. The way they could get the right is to claim that they "had actual care, control and possession of the child for at least six months ending not more than 90 days preceding the date of the filing of the petition."
That's the provision in the Family Code that the Heflins cited, saying Katamba and her baby had been with them more than six months, and that she was often gone throughout the week for her job and would return on the weekends but not spend much time with the boy.
Judge X said the U.S. Supreme Court gave a powerful boost to parents in a 2000 ruling called Troxel v. Granville.
The case involved grandparents who had convinced an Oregon judge to give them more visitation rights than the mother wanted to allow.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, overturned the lower court and the Oregon law, which would let anyone go to court for custody. The court ruled that the 14th Amendment "protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody and control of their children."
It added that "so long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children (i.e., is fit), there will normally be no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent's child."
So those are the main issues for Judge Linda Motheral: the Heflins' standing and Katamba's fitness.
Judge X said Motheral, a board-certified family law specialist, is well equipped to rule on the case. "I see her as a good judge," he said, adding, "Of course it makes a difference that it's Talmadge Heflin."