Florida Supreme Court: no more summary dismissals of private dependency petitions filed by immigrant kids

The Florida Supreme Court issued a 3-1-3 opinion today with the majority ruling in favor of the child and the controlling opinion (i.e, the narrowest reasoning adopted by the most justices) being that trial courts cannot summarily dismiss dependency petitions filed by immigrant children seeking Special Immigrant Juvenile status. In doing so, the opinion echos the concerns of Judge Vance Salter of the Third District that “the recent spate of summary denial orders in the trial court and per curiam affirmances in [the Third District] suggest a categorical rejection of such petitions rather than the usual individualized evidentiary hearings and written findings of fact.”

The controlling opinion also states that the intent of the child to seek a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa is not a basis to summarily deny the petition: “If a child meets the statutory criteria for dependency, then child must be adjudicated accordingly.” The Third District’s determination that the immigrant child petitioner was not “truly” needy without any factual record or evidence was found to be error. The case will be sent back to the trial court for a full evidentiary hearing.

Chief Justice Labarga wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Pariente and Lawson joined. Justice Lewis concurred in result only, but wrote that while he “cannot agree with the summary nature of the proceedings below,” he is concerned that the SIJ visa procedure transforms dependency courts into an “immigration processing system which is strictly reserved for our federal immigration authorities.” Justice Lewis recommends a legislative fix.

Justice Lawson, the newest member of the Florida Supreme Court, wrote additionally to state that he believes the case is ripe for review (in contrast to the dissent below) because it was clear the trial judge had no intention of permitting an amendment to the petition.

Justice Canady, joined by Justices Quince and Polston, dissented on the grounds that this particular child’s petition failed to state a legal basis for dependency. The dissenters agreed, however, that immigrant children should be given an evidentiary hearing and adjudicated dependent where legally appropriate, and that a child’s intent to seek immigration status is legally irrelevant.

The controlling opinion here does not address many of the substantive issues bubbling in the district courts, including whether maltreatment allegations can be dismissed as “remote” if the child is currently living with an appropriate caregiver. The three dissenting justices approved of this “remoteness” test, with Justice Canady writing that the proper focus is not on the parents’ past abandonment in this case, but on whether the child’s current placement is safe. The four majority justices did not adopt this reasoning.

This case was brought by the Immigrant Children’s Justice Clinic at Florida International University and Baker McKenzie. Congrats to both on a fantastic job! The law clinics at the University of Miami and Florida’s Children First filed amicus briefs in support of the child. And many other firms collaboratively worked on related cases that made this outcome possible.

I should note one more thing: many children had their cases summarily dismissed while this appeal was pending. If they aged out pending their appeal, those kids have no recourse under the Court’s ruling in O.I.C.L. Some of those children will be removed from the country and returned to unsafe homes. The work of seeking justice is far from done.

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