To the lay person, the courtroom may feel intimidating and controlled by a judge with almost limitless power. While any Bucks County, Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge is, by nature of the position, in a tremendous position of power, he or she may not always do whatever he or she desires. On a recent appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania a decision of a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge exhibits that when proper procedures are not followed, a citizen's right to due process must come first.
In P.H.D. v. R.R.D., 46 a.3d 817 (Pa.Super. 2012), the trial court was found to have abused its discretion by sua sponte (meaning of his or her own accord) altering an existing custody order despite not having the issue of a custody modification before the court. The parties were before the court based solely on a petition alleging that Father was in contempt of a previously entered order of court. That petition was dismissed. However, in dismissing the petition for contempt, the trial court "clarified" its custody order that was entered eight months prior by ordering the father "not to appear at activities or places where the children would be reasonably expected to be at a particular time." This "clarification" was a drastic elaboration on the previously entered custody order that provided, in relevant part, that the father's contact with the children was limited to supervised visitation until completion of his therapy sessions.
On appeal, the superior court found that the trial court had no authority to modify its own custody order under the above circumstances as no petition to modify the custody order had been filed. Specifically, the superior court found that the father was required to "proactively alter his daily life" to comply with the court's "clarified" order and, therefore, the clarification "unquestionably imposed new and severe restrictions on father, and therefore modified the earlier custody orders." The father, without a petition to modify having been filed, was denied the right to prepare for or present favorable evidence in what was, unbeknownst to him, a custody modification hearing. The superior court noted: "Once the trial court dismissed the contempt petition, it had no authority to rule on modification, which was not before it at that time. The custody court does not possess some ongoing, continuous supervisory role over the life of a family, however broken that family may be. Rather, the court's jurisdiction is triggered only when invoked, and then only upon proper petition and notice
P.H.D. v. R.R.D. is an excellent example of potential reliefs available when procedures are not followed. While the trial court has great authority and discretion, the appellate system is designed to ensure that same discretion is not abused.