Illinois Bar Journal

May 2015Volume 103Number 5Page 10

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Subject matter jurisdiction: The state constitution trumps the UCCJEA

In McCormick, the Illinois Supreme Court rules in an interstate custody dispute that subject matter jurisdiction comes from the constitution, not from a statute.

In McCormick v. Robertson, 2015 IL 118230, the Illinois Supreme Court held that an Illinois court retained subject matter jurisdiction over a custody dispute even though the original custody ruling violated the jurisdiction requirements set out in the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act ("UCCJEA").

The facts of McCormick

The case involved a custody dispute between two parents who, at the time the underlying action was filed, resided in separate states: Illinois and Missouri. Their child, L.M., was born in Missouri on April 23, 2009. McCormick, the father, filed a complaint in the circuit court of Champaign County to establish his paternity and obtain joint custody of L.M. Robertson, the mother and a resident of Missouri, filed her appearance in the Illinois custody action.

In February 2010, McCormick and Robertson entered into a joint parenting agreement. Under the agreement, Robertson was to retain residential custody of L.M. "Courts always prefer joint parenting agreements," says Chicago attorney Gregory Goldstein. "When people work well together, courts grant joint parenting because they likely won't have to see the parties again." The circuit court entered an order establishing McCormick's paternity and approving the joint parenting agreement.

In November 2012, Robertson moved to Las Vegas, taking the child with her. (Although the McCormick opinion does not make it clear, Robertson's actions may have violated the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act's provisions regarding the removal of a minor child, according to Goldstein. "What is not clear is whether the Act applies when the child lives in Missouri but is subject to a joint parenting agreement entered by an Illinois court.")

A year after Robertson moved to Nevada, McCormick filed an action in Champaign County to enforce the joint parenting agreement. Robertson initiated her own action in Nevada, claiming that under the UCCJEA, the Illinois courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the initial action because the child was then a resident of Missouri, not Illinois. The Nevada court entered an order holding that strict compliance with the UUCJEA is necessary to confer subject matter jurisdiction on a court and, therefore, the Illinois court's order was void. The court deemed that the child's current home state was Nevada.

Shortly after that, the circuit court of Champaign County entered an order agreeing with the Nevada court's ruling. The court held that it had no subject matter jurisdiction when it entered its February 2010 order because it had failed to comply with the provisions of the UCCJEA. The court also held that the State of Nevada had exclusive and continuing jurisdiction over the child and that all further proceedings would take place in Nevada.

Jurisdiction derives from the constitution, not the statutes

On appeal in Illinois, McCormick argued that the circuit court was wrong to vacate its order as void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The appellate court agreed, stating that the subject matter jurisdiction of Illinois courts is derived solely from Article VI, Section 9 of the Illinois Constitution. It noted that pursuant to the Illinois Constitution, "the jurisdiction of circuit courts extends to all 'justiciable matters except when the Supreme Court has original an exclusive jurisdiction….'" McCormick v. Robertson, 2015 IL 118230, ¶20.

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed, observing that the constitution does not define "justiciable matter." Generally, a matter is justiciable when it presents a controversy that is definite and concrete, touching upon parties with adverse legal interests. Id. ¶21.

The court then evaluated the interplay between statutory prerequisites and the subject matter jurisdiction of Illinois circuit courts. "Adherence to statutory requirements is vital to the rule of law" and actions that violate those requirements "are subject to challenge when raised in an appropriate way." Id. ¶22. The court stressed, however, that failure to comply with statutory requirements cannot divest a court of subject matter jurisdiction. "So long as a claim meets the requirements for justiciability, it will be sufficient to invoke the court's subject matter jurisdiction, even if the claim is defectively stated." Id. ¶23.

With those principles guiding its reasoning, the court turned to the circuit court's ruling. The court first noted that McCormick's original complaint was not solely related to child custody - it also sought to establish paternity. "No possible basis exists for challenging the authority of the circuit court of Champaign County to rule on that aspect of the case." Id. ¶25. As such, the court upheld the appellate court's reversal of the circuit court's order vacating its judgment of parentage.

The court then turned to the child custody portion of the circuit court's ruling. It acknowledged that the UCCJEA discusses the term "jurisdiction." The court differentiated the statute's use of the term, stating that it "must be understood as simply a procedural limit on when the court may hear initial custody matters, not a precondition to the exercise of the court's inherent authority." Id. ¶27.

Quite simply, the court wrote, "once a court has subject matter jurisdiction over a matter, its judgment will not be rendered void nor will it lose its jurisdiction merely because of an error or impropriety in its determination of the facts or application of the law." Id. ¶28.

Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Sulaiman Law Group, Ltd.

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