United States District Court, C.D. California
DERRICK L. JOHNSON, Petitioner,
KENNETH J. FERNANDEZ, Respondent.
ORDER RE: SUMMARY DISMISSAL OF ACTION FOR LACK OF JURISDICTION
GEORGE H. WU, District Judge.
On August 27, 2014, Petitioner constructively filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. On September 2, 2014, Petitioner constructively filed a First Amended Petition ("FAP"). For the reasons set forth below, the FAP is dismissed without prejudice.
In his FAP, Petitioner challenges the validity of a judgment and orders of the Riverside County Superior Court. (Petition at 2, 5-6.) According to Petitioner, on April 16, 2014, Court Commissioner Kenneth J. Fernandez issued a "grossly inequitable judgment" that "took child custody, community property, and spousal support away from Petitioner, while maintaining jurisdiction of child support." (Petition at 2, 5-6.) Petitioner alleges that Court Commissioner Fernandez's actions in issuing the challenged judgment and orders violated Petitioner's constitutional rights to substantive and procedural due process as well as to equal protection of the laws. Specifically, Petitioner states that Court Commissioner Fernandez issued the challenged rulings without proper authority or procedural protections, including lack of notice and denial of the right to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses at the hearing. Petitioner also claims that the challenged state court rulings are "without a legal basis" and violate Petitioner's "right to [an] unbiased tribunal" and his fundamental right to parent his children and to "own property." (FAP at 5-6.) Petitioner apparently requests that the Court enjoin the enforcement of the challenged judgment and orders. (FAP at 6.) There is no indication that Petitioner is or ever has been in state custody in connection with the state proceedings at issue. As best the Court can tell, it seems Petitioner seeks judicial intervention regarding state court proceedings related to marital and child custody issues.
I. Standard of Review
Pursuant to Rule 4 of the Rules Governing § 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts, a district court may summarily dismiss a habeas corpus petition, before the respondent files an answer, "[i]f it plainly appears from the face of the petition... that the petitioner is not entitled to relief." The notes to Rule 4 state: "a dismissal may be called for on procedural grounds, which may avoid burdening the respondent with the necessity of filing an answer on the substantive merits of the petition.'" See Boyd v. Thompson , 147 F.3d 1124, 1127-28 (9th Cir. 1998); White v. Lewis , 874 F.2d 599, 602-03 (9th Cir. 1989).
Rule 4 is also applicable and permits summary dismissal when no claim for relief is stated. O'Bremski v. Maass , 915 F.2d 418, 420 (9th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 1096 (1991). Summary dismissal is appropriate where the allegations in the petition are vague or conclusory, palpably incredible, or patently frivolous or false. Hendricks v. Vasquez , 908 F.2d 490, 491 (9th Cir. 1990) (quoting Blackledge v. Allison , 431 U.S. 63, 75-76 (1977)). Because Petitioner has stated no viable basis for relief over which the Court has jurisdiction, the FAP is patently frivolous and must be dismissed without prejudice.
II. The Court Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction Over The FAP
The district court has the power and the duty to raise the adequacy of an applicant's standing to bring suit and the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. Bernhardt v. County of Los Angeles , 279 F.3d 862, 868 (9th Cir. 2002); Benavidez v. Eu , 34 F.3d 825, 830 (9th Cir. 1994). "If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3); Franklin v. Oregon Welfare Div. , 662 F.2d 1337, 1342 (9th Cir. 1981).
The Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to entertain the FAP under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 or any of the habeas corpus statutes. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a federal court "shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus... only on the ground that [the applicant] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." Likewise, 28 U.S.C. § 2255 permits a habeas petition by a "prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States[.]" Finally, 28 U.S.C. § 2241 extends to "prisoner[s]" in custody under specified circumstances. Thus, the applicant must be "in custody" in order to establish subject matter jurisdiction for purposes of habeas review.
Here, the FAP alleges that Court Commissioner Fernandez acted without proper authority and contrary to law in connection with domestic relations proceedings involving Petitioner, his children, and his ex-wife. Petitioner alleges that Court Commissioner Fernandez violated Petitioner's constitutional rights in these proceedings. There is no allegation that Petitioner is or has been in custody as a result of these state proceedings, and this type of deprivation does not rise to the level of "custody" required by federal habeas statutes. See Lehman v. Lycoming County Children's Services , 458 U.S. 502, 512-16 (1982) ("extending the federal writ to challenges to state child-custody decisions - challenges based on alleged constitutional defects collateral to the actual custody decision - would be an unprecedented expansion of the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts").
It is well established that federal courts should decline jurisdiction in domestic relations cases. In re Burrus , 136 U.S. 586, 593-94 (1890); Peterson v. Babbitt , 708 F.2d 465, 466 (9th Cir. 1983). More specifically, habeas corpus jurisdiction does not lie for challenges to state court decisions involving parental rights and child custody. Lehman , 458 U.S. at 510-12 (declining to extend habeas jurisdiction to a mother's petition challenging a state court's termination of her parental rights, and dismissing the petition); see also Liggins v. Cate, 2011 WL 3425556, at *1-3 (C.D. Cal. 2011) (summarily dismissing without leave to amend for lack of jurisdiction petition for writ of habeas corpus seeking judicial intervention regarding petitioner's divorce and child custody proceedings in the state courts); Cartwright v. Youngblood, 2010 WL 2464833, at *1-2 (E.D. Cal. 2010) (summarily dismissing habeas corpus petition that challenged a California court decision terminating the petitioner's parental rights).
Habeas corpus is a significant interference with state judicial systems and the finality of state court decisions, and habeas review "should be reserved for those instances in which the federal interest in individual liberty is so strong that it outweighs federalism and finality concerns." Lehman , 458 U.S. at 516; see also Roman-Nose v. New Mexico Dep't of Human Servs. , 967 F.2d 435, 436 (10th Cir. 1992) (state-court judgment involuntarily terminating parental rights cannot be collaterally attacked by way of federal habeas corpus petition); Sylvander v. New England Home for Little Wanderers , 584 F.2d 1103, 1113 (1st Cir. 1978) ...