On June 11, 2013 in the Porter appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the trial court in a decision wherein two judges voted to affirm and one judge voted to reverse.
There was a majority opinion and a dissenting opinion interpreting the meaning of some key words of the Child Custody Act in different ways.
The primary focus in both opinions was the meaning of the terms ‘parent’ and ‘grandparent.’ The Act defines them as follows: ‘Parent’ means the natural or adoptive parent of a child;’ ‘Grandparent’ means a natural or adoptive parent of a child’s natural or adoptive parent. The term ‘natural parent’ is not defined in the Act. The Porter majority found that at the time of his death Russell Porter was not a ‘legal parent’ of the children. As a result, he had no right to have any input as to their lives. The term ‘legal parent’ is also not defined.
Even though the statute uses the term ‘natural parent’ and the plaintiffs’ argued ‘natural parent’ meant ‘biological parent,’ the majority held that this was not a proper interpretation of the statute under case law, and when his rights were terminated, this meant he was not a ‘parent’ at all. Therefore, by definition, he could not be a ‘natural parent.’
Accordingly, the plaintiffs did not have standing under the statute.
The dissent interpreted the term ‘natural parent’ differently and found that the term ‘natural parent’ was the equivalent of a ‘biological parent’ based on dictionary definitions. Additionally another section of the Act allows for possible grandparenting time after termination of parental rights (albeit under different circumstances then presented in the case at bar), which lent support to plaintiffs’ arguments. Finally, case law supports the proposition that even after termination, a parent who has lost ‘legal’ rights remains a ‘natural parent,’ and the majority incorrectly equated “natural parent” with ‘legal parent.’ The dissenting judge concluded that he would find legal standing for the plaintiffs to pursue grandparenting time.
The case is now before the Michigan Supreme Court, which will decide the issue and if the term ‘natural parent’ is the equivalent of ‘legal parent’ or ‘biological parent.’