Facts: The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) successfully removed two children from Mother’s custody because of environmental neglect and failing to protect the children from physical abuse.
DCS later sought to terminate the parental rights of Mother and two fathers concerning their respective children.
When the trial ended the trial court orally announced that it found clear and convincing evidence to terminate both fathers’ parental rights to their respective children. The trial court later entered a detailed order prepared by counsel for DCS.
Both fathers appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
The essential purposes of courts and judges are to afford litigants a public forum to air their disputes and to adjudicate and resolve the disputes between the contending parties. To carry out these purposes, judges must arrive at their decisions by applying the law to the facts. Because making these decisions is a high judicial function, a court’s decisions must be — and must appear to be — the result of exercising the trial court’s own judgment.
Besides expecting judges to be fair, impartial, and engaged, litigants, the attorneys, and the public expect them to explain why a particular result is correct based on the applicable legal principles.
In cases terminating parental rights, the trial court must enter an order making specific findings of fact and conclusions of law.
Tennessee law permits trial courts to adopt findings of fact and conclusions of law prepared by a party if:
- those findings of fact and conclusions of law accurately reflect the trial court’s decision, and
- the record does not create doubt on whether the findings and conclusions in the written order represent the trial court’s own deliberations and decision.
A written order prepared by a party is sufficient when the differences between the written order and oral ruling are minor and the record indicates that the trial court deliberated and made its own decision.
The record gave the Court doubts:
In the present case, we note that the trial court’s oral ruling was notably sparse while the trial court’s written judgment was extremely detailed.
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The trial court’s oral ruling ostensibly is a recitation of the statutory grounds found by the trial court for termination of the parents’ rights and a finding that termination was in the best interest of the children. The trial court articulated that those grounds were found by clear and convincing evidence but identified no further findings of fact in support when announcing his oral ruling. Subsequently, the trial court entered its comprehensive 33-page termination judgment . . . . The written judgment, prepared and submitted by counsel for DCS, contained a detailed analysis, including several findings of fact regarding each ground and the best-interest analysis.
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In the present case, the differences between the trial court’s oral ruling and the subsequent written order are significant rather than minor. Based on the record before us, we cannot make a determination that the written order entered by the trial court terminating the parents’ rights represents the trial court’s own independent analysis and judgment and not that of counsel for DCS.
The trial court’s judgment was vacated and the case remanded for entry of the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law.
K.O.’s Comment: In Delevan-Delta Corp v. Roberts, 611 S.W.2d 51 (Tenn. 1981), the Tennessee Supreme Court says party-prepared orders are permissible when:
- the trial court does not require counsel to prepare the order,
- the trial court carefully reviews the order to ensure the conclusions reflect the court’s opinion,
- the order disposes of all issues, and
- the order does not contain matters that were not part of the court’s determination.