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Honigman attorneys help convince Michigan Supreme Court that a common child welfare practice is unconstitutional

June 18, 2014


Susan Sherbow
T: 313.465.7048

The Michigan Supreme Court issued a hallmark decision recently in In re Sanders striking down the “one-parent doctrine,” which had allowed family courts to remove a child from the custody of both parents and to impose service plans on both parents when only one parent had been found guilty of abuse or neglect. Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP’s attorneys Beth J. Kerwin and Robert M. Riley, formerly a Supreme Court clerk, drafted amicus briefs that helped convince the Supreme Court that the one-parent doctrine violated constitutionally protected parental rights.

The Supreme Court decision will change how child welfare proceedings are conducted for a large number of families in the Michigan court system since courts now will be required to hold a separate hearing for each parent before individual parental rights can be infringed.

Kerwin’s brief was filed on behalf of Legal Services Association of Michigan, the Michigan State Planning Body for the Delivery of Legal Services and the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. Riley’s brief was filed on behalf of the National Association of Counsel for Children.

Both amicus briefs argued that the one-parent doctrine denies a parent due process as required under the U.S. Constitution because each parent has a fundamental right to an individual determination of parental fitness. Kerwin’s brief also strongly emphasized the disproportionate impact of the one-parent doctrine on low income parents when a service plan is required, since it may be particularly burdensome for such parents to meet these requirements. Riley’s brief brought to light the fact that 13 jurisdictions (12 states and the District of Columbia) have recognized the necessity of finding individual unfitness before the jurisdiction can proceed with action against a non-offending parent.

Vivek Sankaran, an attorney with the University of Michigan’s Child Advocacy Clinic, represented the respondent father in this matter. Kerwin and Riley organized a moot court session to help prepare Sankaran for his argument before the Michigan Supreme Court. I. W. Winsten, a Honigman partner and prominent litigator, sat on the moot court panel.

“We are proud that two of our attorneys were instrumental in influencing the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision with regard to this important parental issue,” said Jennifer Zbytowski Belveal, a partner at Honigman and chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee. “Honigman is pleased to provide legal assistance to individuals and organizations on a pro bono basis. It is valuable to the community and it often provides interesting and challenging matters for our attorneys.”

Kerwin earned a J.D., cum laude, from the University of Michigan Law School and received a B.A., with high distinction, from the University of Michigan. Kerwin was also recognized as a “Rising Star” in 2013 in Michigan Super Lawyers.

Riley earned a J.D., cum laude, from Wayne State University Law School, an MBA, with high distinction, from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, and a B.A. from the University of Michigan.