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Secret Baptism Leads to Criminal Contempt

Clarkston Legal Feb. 19, 2016

This interesting family law case springs from Livingston County. The Livingston family court judge’s criminal contempt ruling was reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals last month based on a Due Process analysis.

The Roman Catholic parents divorced in 2013 and had joint custody of their infant daughter. Father attempted to have their daughter baptized at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Pinckney, seeking permission from the family court.

Unbeknownst to Father, Mother had already baptized the child two years earlier. When Father learned of the secret baptism, he moved to have Mother held in contempt of court.

The family court obliged -following a recommendation of contempt issued by the Friend of the Court- and clarified when setting the matter for an evidentiary hearing that Mother was embroiled in criminal rather than civil contempt proceedings. Finding that Mother willfully and intentionally violated the joint custody provisions of the divorce decree, the judge held Mother in criminal contempt of court.

Mother appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals. In reversing the family court, the appellate court ruled that Mother’s constitutional Due Process rights were violated when she was not informed at the outset of the FOC proceedings that she was facing criminal contempt.

Acknowledging that the family court judge eventually clarified that he was conducting criminal contempt proceedings, the Court of Appeals held that was too late and that the Due Process violation had already occurred at the FOC level; also, the family court judge relied on Mother’s unprotected statements made in the FOC as a basis of his contempt finding.

Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the evidence submitted at the contempt hearing did not satisfy the “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard required in criminal contempt proceedings. Along this line of analysis, the family court erred by solely relying on a purported violation of the general joint custody provision in the judgment rather than a more specific provision.