Maryland Court Rules On Judge’s Interview of a Child During Custody Battle

1412362_sunset_silhouetteThe Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently ruled that a trial judge did not abuse his discretion when questioning a child about custody arrangements in Karanikas v. Cartwright. Rachel Karanikas Cartwright (“the mother”) and Konstantinos Karanikas (“the father”) were originally awarded joint legal custody of their nine-year-old daughter, which later changed to physical custody by the mother with visitation by the father.

In March 2012, the mother emailed the father stating her intent to relocate to Pennsylvania with their child. The father did not consent. Both parents filed pleadings to change the original order and judgment. The relocation trial was set for September 7, 2012.

The father sought to have the child testify either in open court or in chambers. Initially the trial judge reserved on the question of whether or not to interview the child because other witnesses might be able to provide information pertinent to the issues such that a nine-year-old would not need to testify. However, the trial judge did meet with the child in chambers for about twelve minutes at the end of the trial’s first day.

The father wanted the judge to expressly ask the child which parent she wanted to live with: her mother or her father. The mother’s attorney asked the judge not to interview the child because it would put the child in an uncomfortable position. In open court, the judge questioned whether it was appropriate to ask her about her preference, but ultimately did ask about her preference at the end of the interview. She had none.

On the second day of trial, the father presented an oral motion to disqualify the trial judge, claiming he made biased statements on the first day. According to the father, the trial judge also mishandled the interview of the child.

The trial judge referred the motion for disqualification to another judge, who denied it. At the conclusion of the trial, the trial judge ordered that the child could be relocated by her mother to Pennsylvania.

Among other issues, on appeal the father argued that the trial judge should have been disqualified because he failed to uphold the law in his interview with the child. First the father argued that the trial judge outright refused to conduct the interview, then he argued that the judge “only agreed to do so in such an extremely limited and unreasonable fashion.”

Although the judge initially said “we’ll see” in open court, in chambers he actually did ask the child the question that the father wanted him to ask: “If you could live at one place—with your mom or your dad, which would you prefer?” The father also took issue with the brevity of the interview.

The Court of Appeals found that the trial judge displayed concern for young children when he commented on the mother’s attorney’s position on child interviews. The father’s attorney was given an opportunity to present an argument for the legal standards on conducting child interviews, and ultimately the judge did interview the child for twelve minutes. Accordingly, the trial judge did not abuse his discretion.

The court must examine many factors and weigh the advantages or disadvantages of different environments when modifying a custody award. Under a 1994 case called Lemley v. Lemley, the court retained discretion about whether to interview a child about his or her opinion. The court isn’t required to speak with a child about preference, but the child’s preference can be one factor that is taken into consideration.

Child custody cases are difficult and emotional, and can consume a significant amount of time. If you are dealing with sensitive family law matters like the one described above, the best interests of your child may depend on hiring a qualified and knowledgeable attorney who can navigate the system for you. Contact lawyer Anthony Fatemi and his legal team for a legal consultation. They have years of experience in Maryland family law, including matters of divorce, prenuptial agreements, separation agreements, property distribution, custody arrangements, alimony, and domestic violence.

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