In the latest twist in a confounding legal case that pits two fundamental rights for the disabled squarely against one another, a man with the mental capacity of a first-grader is appealing a judge’s decision to strip his husband of legal guardianship and move the disabled man out of their Riverside County home.
In a brief filed with the California Fourth District Court of Appeal, attorneys for Ryan Morris are seeking to reverse the trial court ruling, arguing that his limited understanding of what it means to be married should never have been factored into the judge’s decision. The case presents a direct conflict between the hard-won right for the disabled to marry and have sex lives, just like everyone else, and their right to be protected from abuse and undue influence.
“There is a large body of case authority reflecting an extremely low level of mental capacity needed before making the decision to marry or execute a will,” says the brief, which seeks to return guardianship to Morris’ spouse, Sean Spicer. “Marriage arises out of a civil contract, but courts recognize this is a special kind of contract that does not require the same level of mental capacity of the parties as other kinds of contracts.”
The Riverside County judge — who removed Spicer, a man of regular intelligence, as legal conservator for Morris — made numerous errors of law and abused her discretion, Morris’ attorneys said. Morris’ mental capacity was not an issue properly before the court; Morris loves Spicer, wants Spicer as his legal guardian and wants to live with him; and the law “imposes a preference” for Morris’ desires, they argue in their appeal.
Attorneys for Morris’ identical twin brother, Ronald Moore of Orange County, tore into that logic in their response, filed in October.
“The trial court did not annul or set aside the marriage between Spicer and Morris, nor did the trial court modify any of the rights afforded to Morris,” they argued. “He still possesses the rights to consent or withhold consent to marriage and to control his social and sexual contacts. Hence, any claims to the contrary … are diversions from the monumental abuses inflicted on Morris by Spicer.”
Absent from Morris’ appeal was any mention of those abuses — including Spicer’s threats to send Morris back to his adoptive mother’s house, where he had been sexually abused as a child — when he misbehaved, Moore’s attorneys argued. Spicer also threatened to take off his wedding ring, end the marriage and send Morris away for emergency mental health treatment when Morris was difficult or violent. And Spicer punished Morris by restricting visits with his biological family, which desperately wanted to see him.
Spicer also continued to make their home in a Romoland trailer with his parents, despite violent episodes between Morris and Spicer’s mother, and between Morris and Spicer himself. The judge also cited an unsettling episode in which Spicer’s mother attempted to commit suicide by slitting her wrists in front of Morris.
Attorneys for twin Moore called Spicer’s behavior reprehensible. “What kind of person, let alone a spouse and conservator, would do and say such things to a young man that has the mental capacity of a young child in the range of 5 to 7 years old?” they wrote.
In the ruling that’s now contested, Riverside Superior Court Judge Sunshine Sykes said love may not be the best yardstick for decision-making. While she had no doubt that love existed between Morris and Spicer, “sometimes choices based upon love are not always choices made based upon best interest,” she wrote. “The lines between spouse and conservator have been blurred to such an extent that it is no longer in Ryan’s best interest to have Sean in the role of conservator. This is evidenced by numerous instances of abusive behavior.”
The judge appointed the Riverside public guardian as temporary conservator and moved Morris to a new home.
“The trial court’s order in this case impermissibly interfered with (Morris’) right to be married because the order required that he be removed from the home of his spouse,” says the appeal by Mark J. Andrew Flory of Brown White & Osborn.
“The court’s order also limited visitation between Ryan and his spouse to visits in a therapeutic setting only. The trial court’s order has the effect of interfering with (his) fundamental right to be married because the order forces Ryan and his spouse to live separately,” and that, they argue, violates both the United States and California constitutions.
“This Court should reverse the trial court’s order removing the limited conservator,” the appeal said.
Morris and identical twin Moore were taken into state custody shortly after birth due to their parents’ mental illness. Their grandmother fought for custody of both boys, but got only Moore, the healthy baby. Morris had so many special needs he was kept in foster care.
Morris’ foster mother adopted him over the biological family’s vehement objections, then cut off communication. The foster mother surrendered her license last year after the death of a 16-year-old at her facility.
Removed for cause
A legal response by Charles S. Krolikowski and Jason M. Caruso of Newmeyer & Dillion LLP says the appeals court should look with great skepticism on the “inaccurate factual and legal propositions” raised in the appeal.
“The trial court removed Spicer as conservator for cause,” they argued. “The trial court’s decision to remove a conservator is a matter of discretion … determined by the court on case-by-case basis.”
Spicer testified to mistreating and threatening Morris, they argued. And while Morris may say he wants Spicer as conservator now, Morris also has said he doesn’t want to be married or live with Spicer as well.
A video of Morris and Spicer’s wedding shows Morris didn’t understand he was at his own wedding, instead mistaking the ceremony for a baptism. But the judge didn’t annul the marriage because of Morris’ lack of capacity, and it didn’t modify his right to marry or spend time with anyone he wants, they said.
“There was a mountain of evidence to support the removal of Spicer,” they wrote. “This is not a close call. The decision of the trial court should be affirmed.”
Morris’ attorneys have until Dec. 14 to file their reply. The appeals court is expected to made a decision sometime next year.
Source: Orange County Register