Chief Justice Bivins just issued a beautifully reasoned opinion that should remind us all why the Justices are justices. For those following Tennessee family law, the “hottest” issue has been whether Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-124(d) requires the parent to personally sign the notice of appeal, and if so, whether the statute is constitutional. The issue has affected ten cases, including one of my own, and has divided the court of appeals. Lawyers and judges have raised numerous arguments for each side, many of which were somewhat complex. And yet, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided the case in a way that was surprisingly simple.
Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-124(d) states: “Any notice of appeal filed in a termination of parental rights action shall be signed by the appellant.” While many people, including myself, assumed that the word appellant meant “parent,” the father’s attorney in this case, and the Tennessee Supreme Court, noted that appellant can actually mean either the parent or the legal agent-in-fact, i.e., the attorney. Since the word “appellant” is susceptible to more than one meaning, the Court concluded that the word was ambiguous. Therefore, the Court looked to the entire statutory framework to ascertain the General Assembly’s intent.
In reviewing the entire statutory framework, the Court applied the doctrine of in pari materia. In English, that means that when statutes are enacted together, the Court will interpret them together. Interestingly, the same legislation that enacted the statute at issue also enacted Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-117(o), which provides: “The response or answer to a petition for a termination of parental rights shall be signed by the respondent personally, sworn to and verified, and filed with the clerk of the court.” The Court noted that the General Assembly used the word “personally” to require the parent, and not just the parent’s attorney, to sign the response or answer to a petition for termination of parental rights. Since the General Assembly did not use the word “personally” in the statute at issue that was enacted at the same time as Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-117(o), it must have intended something different, i.e., that the parent did not have to personally sign the notice of appeal.
Beautiful. As someone that loves clear reasoning, this opinion has made my night.
It should be noted that the Court gave other reasons for its decision. For example, Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-124(d) does not address jurisdiction or the effect of failure to comply with the signature requirement. Further, the Court of Appeals plays a “crucial role” in fully reviewing termination of parental rights cases. Also, the statutes of other states that require the parent to personally sign the notice of appeal are distinguishable from the statute in this case. Importantly, the Court interpreted the statute to require specific authorization for an appeal (and not just implied authorization).
Still, while the entire opinion is instructive, the “personally” argument is the best part of the opinion because of its simplicity. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” E = mc2. Simple. Okay, perhaps the opinion was not that simple. But, it’s still worth reading even if you don’t practice family law.
Alright, now it’s time to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. Happy Holidays!
In re Bentley D., No. E2016-02299-SC-RDO-PT (Nov. 22, 2017)