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Stephens v. Smith

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Bowling Green

March 15, 2017

DONNIE R. STEPHENS PETITIONER
v.
AARON SMITH, WARDEN RESPONDENT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GREG N. STIVERS, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Petitioner Donnie R. Stephens filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 (DN 1) which is before the Court.

         I.

         Stephens is presently incarcerated at Kentucky State Reformatory. On January 11, 2011, the Russell County Attorney filed an action for Juvenile Dependency, Neglect and Abuse regarding his three minor children. See D.R.S. v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, No. 2014-CA-001018-ME, 2015 WL 2445069 (Ky. Ct. App. May 22, 2015). The action was based on evidence that Stephens had “raped and fondled” one of his children and “fondled” another of his children. Id. On November 16, 2011, he received a final sentence after having pled guilty in Russell Circuit Court to Rape, Second Degree and Unlawful Transaction with a Minor, First Degree. Id. Stephens received a twelve-year sentence. Id.

         On January 19, 2012, the maternal great aunt and her husband were granted permanent custody of Stephens' three children. Id. On April 10, 2014, the Russell Family Court vacated an order of June 26, 2013, regarding a report about the possibility of contact between Stephens and his children and overruled his request for visitation and telephone contact. Id. Stephens appealed the denial of his motion for telephone and letter contact with his minor children to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Id. The Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court. Id. Discretionary review of the matter was denied by the Kentucky Supreme Court on June 8, 2016.

         In the present § 2241 petition, Stephens challenges the state court denial of non-physical contact with his minor children. He raises two grounds for relief. First, he asserts that denying him letter and telephone contact with his minor children violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. Second, he asserts that the trial court “abused its discretion in denying non-physical contact with-out a proper hearing when parent retain parental rights.” He requests this Court to “[r]emand back for a properly held hearing to determine in an evidentiary style proceed whether [Stephens] is entitled to non-physical contact where [Stephens] has followed all recommendations of trial court order of conviction including (SOTP) treatment.”

         II.

         Rule 12(h)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, “If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action.” “Jurisdiction defines the contours of the authority of courts to hear and decide cases, and, in so doing, it dictates the scope of the judiciary's influence.” Douglas v. E.G. Baldwin & Assocs. Inc., 150 F.3d 604, 606 (6th Cir. 1998), overruled on other grounds by Cobb v. Contract Transp., Inc., 452 F.3d 543, 548-49 (6th Cir. 2006). “[F]ederal courts have a duty to consider their subject matter jurisdiction in regard to every case and may raise the issue sua sponte.Answers in Genesis of Ky., Inc. v. Creation Ministries Int'l., 556 F.3d 459, 465 (6th Cir. 2009). The party that seeks to invoke a federal district court's jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing the court's jurisdiction. Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994).

         III.

         Title 28 United States Code § 2241(c) states, in relevant part, as follows:

The writ of habeas corpus shall not extend to a prisoner unless- (1) He is in custody under or by color of the authority of the United States . . .; (2) He is in custody for an act done or omitted in pursuance of an Act of Congress, or an order, process, judgment or decree of a court or judge of the United States; or (3) He is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States . . . .

28 U.S.C. § 2241(c). In the present case, Stephens is not in custody under the authority of the United States nor is he in custody for an act done or omitted in pursuance of an Act of Congress, or an order, process, judgment or decree of a court or judge of the United States. Further, he does not contend that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. “[T]he essence of habeas corpus is an attack by a person in custody upon the legality of that custody, and . . . the traditional function of the writ is to secure release from illegal custody.” Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 484 (1973); see also Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U.S. 54, 58 (1968) (“The writ of habeas corpus is a procedural device for subjecting executive, judicial, or private restraints on liberty to judicial scrutiny. . . . It assures . . . that a prisoner may require his jailer to justify the detention under the law.”); Pierre v. United States, 525 F.2d 933, 935 (5th Cir. 1976) (stating that the “sole function” for a habeas action “is to grant relief from unlawful imprisonment or custody and it cannot be used properly for any other purpose”). Habeas relief “is not available to review questions unrelated to the cause of detention.” Pierre v. United States, 525 F.2d at 935. Stephens is not challenging the legality of his custody nor does he seek release from custody. Therefore, a writ of habeas corpus is not available to him, and his petition for such will be denied on this basis.

         Further, this action must also be dismissed because it seeks to involve the federal court in a domestic relations matter best left to the states. “Domestic relations is ‘a traditional area of state concern.'” Kelm v. Hyatt, 44 F.3d 415, 420 (6th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The Supreme Court has long held that federal courts have no jurisdiction to hear domestic relations matters. See Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 703 (1992) (holding that the domestic relations exception “divests the federal courts of power to issue divorce, alimony, and child custody decrees”); Lehman v. Lycoming Cty. Children's Servs., 458 U.S. 502, 510-11 (1982) (holding that federal habeas corpus jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 could not be invoked where a state had obtained custody of children and terminated the parental rights); Ex parte Burrus, 136 U.S. 586, 593-94 (1890) (“The whole subject of the domestic relations of a husband and wife, parent and child, belongs to the laws of the states, and not to the laws of the United States”). “Even when brought under the guise of a federal question action, a suit whose subject is domestic relations generally will not be entertained in a federal court.” Firestone v. Cleveland Trust Co., 654 F.2d 1212, 1215 (6th Cir. 1981).

         The Sixth Circuit discussed the domestic-relations exception in two recent cases, Alexander v. Rosen, 804 F.3d 1203 (6th Cir. 2015) and Chevalier v. Estate of Barnhart, 803 F.3d 789 (6th Cir. 2015). The Sixth Circuit clarified that the domestic-relations exception applies only to a “narrow range” of cases, Chevalier v. Estate of Barnhart, 803 F.3d at 795, and it does not apply “unless ‘a plaintiff positively sues in federal court for divorce, alimony, or child custody, ' or seeks to modify or interpret an existing divorce, alimony, or child-custody decree.” Chevalier v. Estate of Barnhart, 803 F.3d at 796 (quoting Catz v. Chalker, 142 F.3d 279, 292 (6th Cir. 1998)). “When analyzing the applicability of the ...


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