In re Messiah S.

Conn. App.

Oct. 16, 2012

TERMINATION OF PARENTAL RIGHTS/TRANSFER OF GUARDIANSHIP/JUDICIAL RECUSAL (with concurrence)

The appellate court affirmed the judgment terminating the respondent mother’s parental rights, denying her claims that the court (1) “failed to undertake an independent analysis of the law and facts of the case; (2) abused its discretion when it failed to grant the respondent’s  motion for judicial recusal, and (3) erroneously denied the respondents’ motion to transfer guardianship of the children to a relative.

The respondent mother contended that the court failed to independently analyze the facts regarding whether termination of parental rights served the children’s best interests, as evidenced by the court’s “cutting and pasting” of findings made in several prior TPR decisions.  The appellate court acknowledged its previous opinions stating that it did not approve of courts’ wholesale adoption of large portions of party exhibits as a substitute for individualized or independently written findings. (See e.g., In Re Halle T, 96 Conn. App. 815 (2006.)  However, the central question on appeal is whether the court made appropriate findings supported by the record.  In this case, the court’s memorandum of decision, taken as a whole, contained ample reference to evidence regarding the parents’ long history with substance abuse, mental health challenges, domestic violence and the impact of these issues on the children’s well-being.

The appellate court spent most of its discussion on the issue of judicial recusal.  The respondent mother made an oral motion for the court to recuse itself due to impatient questions made by the court to counsel, as well as a series of questions that the court directed to witnesses, seemingly on behalf of the state’s case.  The appellate court noted that Rule 2.11 of the Code of Judicial Conduct requires a judge to   ‘‘disqualify himself [or herself] in a proceeding in which his [or her] impartiality might reasonably be questioned . . . .’’ … Weyel v. Catania, 52 Conn. App. 292, 299, 728 A.2d 512, cert. denied, 248 Conn. 922, 733 A.2d 846 (1999). “  The appellate court continued that “ [t]he alleged bias and prejudice, to be disqualifying, must stem from an extrajudicial sourceand result in an opinion on the merits on some basis other than what the judge learned from his [or her] participation in the case. . . . Moreover, to support a claim of disqualification, the judge’s comments must express a personal bias against the parties and not merely be directed at the merits of the defense claimed based on information presented to him [or her] during a trial on the merits.” Here, the appellate court noted that the conduct by the court related more to judicial temperament, rather than bias, and “[i]n this case, the court’s unfortunate display of frustration did not evidence bias.”

Justice Peters filed a concurring opinion stating that the court’s conduct required it to grant respondent mother’s motion for recusal because “[f]rom the outset of the trial, the judge not only vented his frustration but, at the very least, created an atmosphere that impaired the efforts of the respondent’s counsel to present her case.”  However, the concurrence determined that due to the ample evidence in support of the court’s decision, the improper denial of the respondent’s motion was not a structural error that required reversal of the court’s judgment.

Finally, the appellate court found that the court was within its discretion to deny the motion to transfer guardianship as the record contained evidence that the proposed guardian had limited familiarity with the children’s specialized needs, and saw guardianship as a route to perhaps returning the children to the custody of the respondents at a future date.

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