When Billy Joe Davis quit making his monthly child support payments
in September 1980, he felt he had good reason - his exwife had taken
their one-year-old daughter, Brandy Michelle, overseas to live with
her new husband who was stationed in Germany while serving in the
Davis had visitation rights according to the divorce decree, and
was to have been able to see his daughter when his ex-wife, Dean Ann
Davis, brought her back the United States for three weeks a year.
But as it turned out, the ex-wife would not allow him to see his
daughter, according to court records, so Billy Davis stopped making
the child support payments.
"I didn't get visitations rights, so I didn't feel it was right to
pay," he told the court.
In February 1982, the ex-wife brought suit in Lincoln County
District Court against Billy Davis in an attempt to revoke his
parental rights for failing to pay the child support. Lincoln County
District Judge Donald Powers agreed with the ex-wife, and issued an
order revoking his rights as parent of his minor daughter.
The decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals. Dean Ann
Davis appealed to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court, where in a split
decision (5-4) recorded Oct. 22, the court agreed with Billy Davis,
vacated the Court of Appeals decision and reversed Powers' order
revoking Davis' parental rights.
- The "dispositive issue," Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Marian
Opala wrote for the majority, "is whether an involuntary termination
of a parental bond may be affected in private interparental
proceedings based upon the grounds" provided in Oklahoma statutes.
"The remedies provided in the so-called juvenile code," Opala
wrote, "are to be viewed as restricted to public law contests in
which the state may assert an interest qua parens patriae" - the
rightof the government to take care of minors and other others who
cannot legally take care of themselves.
"In a purely private interparental proceeding either to free a
child of a parent's dominion or to effectuate the termination of
parental bond, the plaintiff must resort to remedies provided" in
statutes other than what Dean Ann Davis asserted in her petition,
The state's interest, therefore, becomes implicated upon a finding
of harm to the child - actual or potential - or of the custodial
"Absent that finding," Opala wrote, "public policy clearly favors
preservation, not destruction, of a subsisting parent-child
The particular section of Oklahoma statutes in which the child's
mother had sought to revoke Davis' parental rights "may be sought by
the state only simultaneously with or after a prior adjudication of a
child's deprived status," Opala said.
"The integrity of the family unit and preservation of the
parent-child relationship command the highest protection in our
society," Opala added. "Intrusion upon the privacy and sanctity of
that bond can be justified only upon demonstration of a compelling
Opala stressed in his opinion that the public interest lies in
protecting the child from harm and absent that harm, intervention by
the state is impermissible.
"Resort to state-action remedies by private individuals would
result in a gross distortion of the legal demarcation line that
historically has separated purely private interspousal claims from
the legislatively-sanctioned process governing state intrusion into
the traditional. . .areas of family immunity," Opala wrote.
Those areas of family immunity have as their basis Oklahoma common
law, Opala said, which "regards a parent's bond with the child as
indestructible and not terminable by judicial decree."
The section of law under which the ex-wife sought to terminate
Billy Joe Davis' parental rights is "in derogation of the common
law," Opala wrote, and "statutes that abrogate the common law are to
be liberally construed. …