With today’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court issues opinions in one case. No new cases were chosen for argument this fall.

Opinion

How does a family-law “mediated settlement agreement” (MSA) change a trial court’s power to make rulings in the best interest of a child?

To see individual opinions, click on the voting groups above.

It’s not that often that you can tell which Justice in a 5-4 majority was the swing vote. In this case, however, it was Justice Guzman whose vote defines the scope of the ruling. She joined the majority only in part, and her concurring opinion expresses agreement with the dissent on other legal issues.

The broad question was whether a trial court should have entered judgment on a mediated settlement agreement (MSA) of a family dispute. The trial court refused, concluding that doing so was not in the best interest of the child.

The Court granted mandamus relief, concluding that under the Texas statute to promote mediated settlements, the trial court did not have authority to second guess the best-interests determination reached through mediation. (Justice Lehrmann’s opinion for the Court announces that relief.)

Justice Guzman joined that opinion only in part. The opinion of the Court had concluded that the statute left a trial court no discretion to refuse to enter an MSA — whether on grounds of the best interest of the child or even in a situation where there was evidence of child endangerment. (Justice Lehrmann’s opinion notes there are other ways, through other legal mechanisms, that a trial court could report the evidence of endangerment to appropriate authorities. So, the trial court is not supposed to ignore the evidence. It just cannot refuse to enter the MSA on that ground.)

Justice Guzman did not share that statutory interpretation. Although she agreed that the statute did not permit an MSA to be second-guessed on best-interest grounds, she interprets the statute to allow a trial court to refuse to enter the MSA if there is evidence of child endangerment.

On that statutory interpretation, Justice Guzman agrees largely with the four-Justice dissent written by Justice Green. Five Justices read the statute to allow a trial court to refuse to enter an MSA if there is evidence of child endangerment. (( The dissent has a broader reading of the statute, but the common ground is that child endangerment is enough. Whether this kind of agreement on a legal point between a concurrence and a four-Justice dissent constitutes a “holding” is an exercise left for the reader — and for future Bluebooking quizzes. ))

So, if you’re counting at home:

  • Only four Justices favor the statutory interpretation in the majority/plurality opinion.

  • Five Justices favor a statutory interpretation more like that advanced by the dissent.

But Justice Guzman joined with the judgment favored by the majority, rather than the dissent, because she concluded that the evidence on this record was not sufficient to indicate child endangerment. Her opinion explains that the trial court sustained a hearsay objection to the only evidence suggesting endangerment so the record “does not establish the threshold I believe must be met before a trial court may disregard legislative policy concerning the deference to which MSAs are entitled.”