Affirming Denial of Writ of Prohibition and the UCCJEA – Published Opinion from Ky. Supreme Court

Flag of Kentucky

Lawson v. Woeste and Villarreal

Questions Presented: Family Law. Writ of Prohibition. Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act. A circuit court’s decision that it continues to have jurisdiction over a child custody matter under the UCCJEA is an exercise of a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. A circuit court’s determination that it has “exclusive, continuing jurisdiction” over a child custody matter pursuant to KRS 403.824(1)(a) is a decision of particular-case jurisdiction by the court. First-class writ relief is not appropriate where a party is challenging a circuit court’s determination that it has subject-matter jurisdiction under UCCJEA. Second-class writ relief is also not appropriate where appellant has adequate remedy through pending appeal on the merits.

Campbell Circuit Court

Mother and Father were initially divorced in Indiana with an agreement for joint custody. Mother moved to Kentucky with children by agreement and father followed. Mother then moved to Mississippi without any agreement or court approval. The custody agreement was registered in Kentucky and mother, after moving, filed a motion in a Kentucky family court to relocate. Mother’s motion was initially granted and the children primarily resided with Mother in Mississippi. Father exercised parenting time over summer and holidays in Kentucky. The conflict between the parties continued resulting in Father filing a motion to be the primary residential custodian. The Kentucky family court ultimately granted Father’s motion entering an order for the children to be returned to Kentucky by a date certain. Mother filed a writ in the Court of Appeals asking the Court of Appeals to stay the relocation order pending an appeal on the merits.

Mother made conflicting arguments to the Court of Appeals. She first argued that the family court was acting erroneously but within its jurisdiction – a second class writ. The Court of Appeals denied her motion for relief. She then argued that the family court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction under the UCCJEA – a first class writ. Again, her motion for relief was denied. The Supreme Court examined both arguments.

The Supreme Court turns to the first class writ argument first. A first class writ does not require a showing of irreparable injury, but must demonstrate the lower court had no subject-matter jurisdiction at all. Mother argued the family court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the UCCJEA KRS 403.824(1)(a) because the substantial evidence regarding the children was in Mississippi, not Kentucky. Therefore, mother believed the Kentucky court lost continuing exclusive jurisdiction. The Supreme Court clarifies the distinction between subject-matter jurisdiction, the court’s power to rule on a certain classes of controversy, and particular case jurisdiction, the court’s power to rule in a specific case given jurisdictional facts as opposed to a class of cases. The UCCJEA is not “self executing.” The lower court cannot properly exercise subject-matter jurisdiction over a custody agreement and then have that jurisdiction disappear. In evaluating the KRS 403.824(a) factors, the Court was simply making a determination of particular-case jurisdiction given the facts. A first class writ fails here because the family court clearly had subject-matter jurisdiction.

Turning to the second class writ argument, the Supreme Court affirms the Court of Appeals as there is no need for a writ when Mother has an existing remedy by appeal. She cannot use the write process to “circumvent normal appellate process.” A second class writ fails here because there is an adequate remedy by appeal.

Digested by Elizabeth M. Howell

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