The trial court in October 2001 granted the motion of Deborah Rowe Jackson to terminate her own parental rights to her two children, Michael Joseph Jackson, Jr., and Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, giving sole responsibility for the two children to their father, Michael J. Jackson. In April 2004 the trial court declared the October 2001 termination order void and in October 2004 denied Michael's
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
1. Termination of Deborah's Parental Rights
In October 1999 Deborah and Michael, married at the time, entered into a stipulation for judgment providing Michael would have sole legal and physical custody of their two children, Michael, Jr., and Paris; Deborah was granted visitation rights. Deborah and Michael's marriage was dissolved in April 2000. Approximately six months later Deborah decided to stop visiting the children because, according to her, the visitation "was not working out for various reasons." Deborah agreed to a modification of the earlier child custody judgment, relinquishing her visitation rights.
In October 2001 Deborah filed a motion to terminate her parental rights. Deborah's declaration in support of her motion stated, "MICHAEL has been a wonderful father to the children and I do not wish to share parenting responsibilities with MICHAEL because he is doing so well without me. [¶] ... I want to forever give up any and all rights pertaining to the children because I believe that by doing so, it is in the children's best interests." Deborah also stated she fully understood the implications of relinquishing her parental rights.
At the hearing on Deborah's motion, which Michael did not attend, Michael's counsel stated Michael did not oppose Deborah's motion and counsel was there "to facilitate a record that will allow the
2. Deborah's Ex Parte Application for an Order to Show Cause for Modification of, Among Other Things, Child Custody and Child Support
More than two years after Deborah's motion to terminate her parental rights had been granted, she filed an ex parte application for an order to show cause seeking, among other things, temporary exclusive custody of the children pending completion of a psychiatric evaluation to assist in determining what permanent custody would be in the best interest of the children. The application stated Deborah now sought temporary custody because of concerns arising from Michael's criminal prosecution and press reports Michael had associated with the Nation of Islam, whose members Deborah believed do "not like Jews." Because she is Jewish, Deborah feared the children might be mistreated if Michael continued his association with the Nation of Islam. Michael opposed Deborah's ex parte application in part on the ground Deborah lacked standing to request the court make any orders regarding the children because the court had previously terminated her parental rights.
After several rounds of extensive briefing on a myriad of legal theories and following oral argument, the court on April 2, 2004 granted in part and denied in part Deborah's ex parte application. The court found its earlier order terminating Deborah's
3. Michael's Motion to Vacate the Portion of the Court's Order Declaring the Termination Order Void
On September 16, 2004, after retaining new counsel, Michael moved to vacate that portion of the court's April 2, 2004 order declaring the termination order void on the ground the order was final and could not be directly or collaterally attacked. In response Deborah argued a void order could be collaterally attacked at any time. Relying on In re Goodarzirad (1986) 185 Cal.App.3d 1020, 1026, 230 Cal.Rptr. 203 (Goodarzirad) ("stipulations between parents involving the minor children which attempt to divest the court of jurisdiction are void"), Deborah asserted for the first time the termination order was void because it had been impermissibly based on Michael's and her stipulation to terminate her parental rights.
The court denied Michael's motion to vacate, finding that, even though Michael had not stipulated in writing to the termination of Deborah's parental rights, the termination proceeding "was the functional equivalent of a stipulated proceeding/stipulated agreement between the parties" and as such void under Goodarzirad. Notwithstanding its own statement in October 2001 that termination was in the best interest of the children, the court found in fact no best-interest inquiry had been made by the court at that time. The court explained, "Not a single thing was done to enlighten the trier of fact as to the best interests of the children. The children's interests were not brought forth through any of the means that our codes provide. And [Goodarzirad] stands for the proposition that parties cannot by themselves stipulate to termination of parental rights. If there ever was a case where the parties stipulated to the termination of parent rights and nothing further was done, this was such a case."
Michael contends (1) he did not stipulate to the termination of Deborah's parental rights and the termination order is therefore not void or otherwise subject to collateral attack; and (2) the failure of the court to follow proper procedures in conducting the inquiry into termination was invited error and, in any event, harmless.
1. The Trial Court Had Jurisdiction to Decide Deborah's Collateral Attack on the October 2001 Judgment Terminating Her Parental Rights
Deborah contends, because the trial court acted in excess of its jurisdiction in entering the October 2001 termination order, that order is void and properly subject to collateral attack. Although collateral
Lack of jurisdiction in the "most fundamental or strict sense means an entire absence of power to hear or determine the case, an absence of authority over the subject matter or the parties. [Citation.]" (Abelleira v. District Court of Appeal (1941) 17 Cal.2d 280, 288, 109 P.2d 942; Varian Medical Systems, Inc. v. Delfino (2005) 35 Cal.4th 180, 196, 25 Cal.Rptr.3d 298, 106 P.3d 958 ["in the absence of subject matter jurisdiction, a trial court has no power `to hear or determine [the] case.' [Citation.] And any judgment or order rendered by a court lacking subject matter jurisdiction is `void on its face....' [Citation.]"].) In a broader sense, lack of jurisdiction also exists when a court "make[s] orders which are not authorized by statute." (Polin v. Cosio (1993) 16 Cal.App.4th 1451, 1454-1455, 20 Cal.Rptr.2d 714.) "`[I]t seems well settled ... that when a statute authorizes prescribed procedure, and the court acts contrary to the authority thus conferred, it has exceeded its jurisdiction....'" (Abelleira, at p. 290, 109 P.2d 942; see Polin, at pp. 1455-1457, 20 Cal.Rptr.2d 714 [judgment awarding custody exceeded statutory authority]; Goodarzirad, supra, 185 Cal.App.3d at pp. 1024-1027, 230 Cal.Rptr. 203 [stipulated judgment to terminate paternity was void and subject to collateral attack].)
If the trial court has subject matter jurisdiction to hear or determine a case and personal jurisdiction over the parties, an order or judgment rendered in excess of the court's jurisdiction, such as by its failure to follow fundamental procedures prescribed by statute, remains valid but voidable. (Neumann v. Melgar (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 152, 164, 16 Cal.Rptr.3d 754; In re Andres G. (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 476, 482-483, 75 Cal.Rptr.2d 285.) A stipulated judgment or other order in excess of the court's jurisdiction may not be collaterally attacked absent unusual circumstances or compelling policy considerations. (In re Marriage of Hinman (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 711, 718, fn. 2, 8 Cal.Rptr.2d 245.) Thus, appellate courts have repeatedly allowed acts in excess of jurisdiction to stand when the acts were beneficial to all parties and did not violate public policy (In re Andres G., at p. 482, 75 Cal.Rptr.2d 285; see, e.g., Cowan v. Superior Court (1996) 14 Cal.4th 367, 370-376, 58 Cal.Rptr.2d 458, 926 P.2d 438 [trial court allowed defendant to plead
As we discuss below, the termination order exceeded the trial court's jurisdiction and contravenes "the public policy favoring that a child has two parents rather than one." (Kristine H. v. Lisa R., supra, 37 Cal.4th at p. 166, 33 Cal.Rptr.3d 81, 117 P.3d 690.) Accordingly, Deborah's collateral attack on that order is not precluded.
2. The Termination Order Was Impermissibly Based on the Parties' Agreement to Terminate Deborah's Parental Rights
A court cannot enter a judgment terminating parental rights based solely upon the parties' stipulation that the child's mother or father relinquishes those rights. (Kristine M. v. David P. (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 783, 791, 37 Cal.Rptr.3d 748 ["the public policies favoring creation of a father-child relationship as a source of emotional and financial support ... trump any policy that would favor private ordering of parenthood after the birth of a child"]; Goodarzirad, supra, 185 Cal.App.3d at p. 1026, 230 Cal.Rptr. 203; In re Matthew S. (1988) 201 Cal.App.3d 315, 320, 247 Cal.Rptr. 100.)
Michael contends the public policy underlying Goodarzirad is inapplicable in this case because he did not stipulate to terminate Deborah's parental rights: He did not sign any document agreeing to the termination; he did not attend the hearing on Deborah's motion to terminate; and he did not have any advance notice Deborah intended to move to terminate her parental rights. Thus, Michael argues, there is no basis for the court's finding the termination hearing "was the functional equivalent of a stipulated proceeding/stipulated agreement between the parties."
Substantial evidence supports the court's finding the termination hearing was a stipulated proceeding.
Additionally, the same, highly experienced retired superior court judge who had granted Deborah's motion to terminate in October 2001 heard Deborah's ex parte application in April 2004 and Michael's October 2004 motion to vacate. That judge was familiar with the history between the parties and fully understood the factual context in which the court had approved the parties' agreement. At the hearing on Michael's motion to vacate, the court explained, "It was an arranged deal from the beginning. The terms of the deal were in flux. They changed. Part of what was happening was that they were changed in a way that Ms. Rowe didn't like. This was not mom and dad saying, `Hey, let's have a family that we're going to raise.' When you start with an understanding of what went on between Ms. Rowe and Mr. Jackson, you then see what progressed to the October 2001 hearing, and what progressed to the October 2001 hearing was what I would have to find factually was a deemed stipulated hearing, and I do so find.... There was never a question in this judge's mind, in my mind, that I was going to have to make a factual decision based upon any evidence that would be produced at that hearing. There was never a question in my mind that I was going to have to take notes so that I could make sure that I found the right facts in order to support a decision. It was a preordained hearing. The ruling was preordained. How much of this had been worked out by [counsel] in advance, ... I don't know. I have no idea that is based in fact. I have a good idea based in reality and based in common sense, but I certainly can't say I have any hard evidence to support it. But there was never a single suspicion that this hearing was going to be anything other than what you might call a gimme. Ms. Rowe was going to come in. She was going to recite the things that she had to recite. [Michael's counsel], representing his client, made sure that everything he thought had to be there was going to be there. He didn't examine her in the sense of trying to have the court come up with a finding contrary to what Ms. Rowe wanted. They were both after the same thing. Ms. Rowe was there seeking termination, and Mr. Jackson was there seeking termination. There is no question about it. So I have to agree with [Ms. Rowe] that this was for all purposes a stipulated hearing, that this was a hearing based upon an agreement of the parties ... that Ms. Rowe's parental rights would be terminated, and we did it in a manner that was inconsistent with the law."
Substantial evidence supports the court's finding, "If there ever was a case where the parties stipulated to the termination of parental rights and nothing further was done, this was such a case."
Even if Michael were correct, however, and he did not effectively stipulate with Deborah for the termination of her parental rights, the result would be no different if, based solely on Deborah's uncontested
The fundamental problem in Goodarzirad, supra, 185 Cal.App.3d 1020, 230 Cal.Rptr. 203, was not simply that the trial court had entered an order based on the parties' agreement, but that it did so without itself evaluating what would serve the best interest and welfare of the parties' minor children. (Id. at pp. 1026, 1029, 230 Cal.Rptr. 203 ["[Former] Civil Code sections 232 et seq. contain very precise criteria and procedures which must be followed before parental custody and control can be terminated. It is clear that the Legislature wanted these specific procedures followed without deviation from the statutory scheme."; "The foremost interest in termination proceedings is to serve and protect the welfare and interests of the child. [Citation.] The fundamental rights of the parent and child should not be allowed to be tampered with by a confession of judgment which removes all determinations surrounding the propriety of the action."].) Indeed, should a mother and father stipulate to terminate one or both parents' rights, if the court follows all the procedures mandated by the Family Code, orders an independent investigation and then bases its findings of best interest and the order of termination on the investigator's report and other evidence presented at the hearing, it would be difficult to argue either considerations of policy or the analysis or holding of Goodarzirad authorize a collateral attack on the court's judgment. Simply put, it is the court's total abdication of its responsibilities, not the mere fact that the parties agree, that makes a stipulated judgment to terminate parental rights invalid.
3. Deborah's Challenge to the October 2001 Termination Order Is Not Barred by Judicial Estoppel
The doctrine of judicial estoppel has frequently been invoked to bar a party from contesting the validity of a judgment procured by that party. (Kristine H. v. Lisa R., supra, 37 Cal.4th at p. 162, 33 Cal.Rptr.3d 81, 117 P.3d 690; see In re Griffin, supra, 67 Cal.2d at p. 347, 62 Cal.Rptr. 1, 431 P.2d 625.) Whether estoppel will actually be applied depends on the significance of the procedural irregularities, whether the court's act violated a comprehensive statutory scheme and considerations of public policy. (Neumann v. Melgar, supra, 121 Cal.App.4th at p. 164, 16 Cal.Rptr.3d 754; Adoption of Matthew B., supra, 232 Cal.App.3d at p. 1269, 284 Cal.Rptr. 18.) We agree with Michael that Deborah's actions "`"... trifle with the
A central factor in determining whether to apply judicial estoppel to preclude a party from challenging an order based on an agreement determining parentage is whether the agreed-to order promotes or undermines this state's public policy "favoring that a child has two parents rather than one." (Kristine H. v. Lisa R., supra, 37 Cal.4th at p. 166, 33 Cal.Rptr.3d 81, 117 P.3d 690; see also Elisa B v. Superior Court (2005) 37 Cal.4th 108, 123, 33 Cal.Rptr.3d 46, 117 P.3d 660 ["By recognizing the value of determining paternity, the Legislature implicitly recognized the value of having two parents, rather than one, as a source of both emotional and financial support, especially when the obligation to support the child would otherwise fall to the public."]; Fam.Code, § 3020, subd. (b) [public policy of California is "to assure that children have frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage, or ended their relationship ... except where the contact would not be in the best interest of the child...."].) Thus, in Goodarzirad, at pages 1026, 230 Cal.Rptr. 203 to 1027, the stipulated judgment at issue would have deprived the child of one of his two parents; the Court of Appeal held judicial estoppel did not bar the husband's successful challenge to that order although he had previously agreed to it. In Kristine H. v. Lisa R., supra, at page 166, 33 Cal.Rptr.3d 81, 117 P.3d 690, in contrast, the Supreme Court held the biological mother of a child was estopped from attacking the validity of a two-year old stipulated judgment declaring that she and her lesbian partner were the joint legal parents of the child, which would have deprived the child of one of her two parents following the couple's separation.
Similarly, in Adoption of Matthew B., supra, 232 Cal.App.3d at page 1269, 284 Cal.Rptr. 18, the estoppel doctrine was applied to preclude a party (a surrogate) to a stipulated judgment of paternity, which had assured the child had two parents, from challenging the validity of the judgment. And in In re Marriage of Hinman, supra, 6 Cal.App.4th at page 716, 8 Cal.Rptr.2d 245, judicial estoppel was invoked to prevent a wife from attacking the validity of a judgment to which she had stipulated as part of dissolution proceedings in which she had listed five minor children of the marriage, including two children who had been born prior to the marriage and had been fathered by the wife's former husband. The parties had stipulated wife and husband would share joint physical and legal custody of all five children, and a judgment was entered. The wife's subsequent
"In this case, as in any other child custody or paternity matter, the `ends of justice' are served when we fulfill our obligation to protect the best interests of the child." (Robert J. v. Leslie M., supra, 51 Cal.App.4th at p. 1647, 59 Cal.Rptr.2d 905 [doctrine of res judicata barred father's action against child's mother seeking declaration of father's nonpaternity notwithstanding father had stipulated to paternity].) Regardless of how objectionable it may be for Deborah to invoke the jurisdiction of the court, obtain the precise relief she requested, and now seek to reverse that action by claiming the court failed to inquire into the best interest of her children, the fact remains the trial court has candidly acknowledged it relied entirely on Deborah's now-recanted declaration and did not inquire on its own into the children's best interest when it entered its order permanently depriving the children of one of their two parents.
4. Because the Court Acted in Excess of its Jurisdiction in Entering the Termination Order, the Harmless Error Doctrine Is Inapplicable
Michael's final argument, based in substantial part on comments made by the trial court at the hearing on Deborah's ex parte application,
This general rule, however, is inapplicable if the trial court has acted in excess of its jurisdiction in granting the relief being challenged: If jurisdictional error has occurred, the resulting judgment or order is "voidable and reversible on appeal even where, as here, it is clear from the record [that no prejudice resulted]." (In re Marriage of Goddard, supra, 33 Cal.4th at p. 54, 14 Cal.Rptr.3d 50, 90 P.3d 1209; see In re Jesusa V. (2004) 32 Cal.4th 588, 624, 10 Cal.Rptr.3d 205, 85 P.3d 2 ["We typically apply a harmless-error analysis when a statutory mandate is disobeyed except in a narrow category of circumstances when we deem the error reversible per se."].) Because the trial court's October 2001 termination order was an act in excess of its jurisdiction-that is, an act in violation of a clear restriction or limitation on the court's power to act and not merely an error of law (see In re Marriage of Goddard, at p. 57, 14 Cal.Rptr.3d 50, 90 P.3d 1209)-the termination order was properly voided without further inquiry into possible prejudice suffered by Deborah or the minor children affected by it.
The portion of the April 2, 2004 order invalidating the October 2001 termination of Deborah Rowe Jackson's parental rights and the October 21, 2004 order denying the motion to vacate the April 12, 2004 order are affirmed. Deborah Rowe Jackson is to recover her costs on appeal.
We concur: JOHNSON and WOODS, JJ.