The Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) includes various provisions for determining where a custody and parentage dispute should be litigated when multiple states are involved. But what happens when the Circuit Court enters a custody order even though the UCCJEA appears to say the dispute belonged somewhere else? Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court answered that question in McCormick v. Robertson: the resulting judgment might be subject to challenge on appeal, but it was not subject to challenge four years later on grounds of voidness. Our report on the oral argument in McCormick is here.
In McCormick, the parties had a brief relationship, which resulted in the birth of a child in 2009. In early 2010, the father filed a claim in Champaign County – his home jurisdiction at the time – pursuant to the Illinois Parentage Act, seeking an order establishing parentage and awarding joint custody. The parties ultimately presented a joint agreement to the court, which it approved.
Following entry of the judgment, the father entered the Marine Corps, ultimately serving tours in Okinawa, Japan and Afghanistan. In November 2012, the mother moved to Las Vegas with her parents, taking the child with her. The father responded by returning to court in Champaign County and moving for an order to show cause why the mother shouldn’t be held in contempt for moving the child, which the father argued effectively precluded him from visiting. After the court declined to enter an OSC, the father moved for sole custody. The mother responded with her own action in Nevada, arguing that the Champaign County order had been entered despite the court lacking “jurisdiction” under the UCCJEA, and was therefore void. At the same time, the mother filed a motion in Champaign County asking the court to vacate its now four-year-old custody order on grounds of voidness. The Circuit Court agreed and vacated the order, but the Appellate Court reversed.
Although the matter was still in some doubt at the time of the argument, the result in McCormick became pretty much a foregone conclusion in late February with the Court’s decision in LVNV Funding. There, the Court held that failure to comply with statutory prerequisites could never deprive a trial court of subject matter jurisdiction, since the subject matter jurisdiction of Illinois courts flows solely from the state constitution. But the only way that the 2010 custody order in McCormick could validly have been set aside four years after it was entered is if it was void.
The Court unanimously affirmed in an opinion by Justice Karmeier. The Court explained that whether a case presented a justiciable matter was decided case-by-case. The standards are quite similar to federal law – the issues have to be definite and concrete, not moot or premature, and not calling for an opinion on an abstract proposition of law. Compliance with statutory prerequisites involves “an altogether different set of values,” the Court wrote. Non-compliance could certainly render a decision subject to reversal on appeal, but because the subject matter jurisdiction of the courts is entirely outside of the legislature’s control in Illinois, non-compliance does not make a judgment void.
The 2010 litigation had involved both a parentage determination and a custody issue, the Court pointed out. The UCCJEA had nothing to say about parentage determinations, so there was no possible argument for why that part of the judgment should be void. Since the custody issue was clearly justiciable, that part of the judgment wasn’t void either. Since the 2010 order wasn’t void, there was no basis for vacating it in 2014, and the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s judgment.