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Vanessa C. v. Priscilla E.

August 28, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Tully

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. Honorable Donna Cervini, Judge Presiding.

Respondent, Priscilla E., appeals from the July 17, 1998, order finding her to be an unfit parent and terminating her parental rights with respect to two of her children, Vanessa C. and Priscilla C. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 303. 155 Ill. 2d R. 303.

The minor children, Vanessa C. and Priscilla C., were found to be neglected and abused on September 23, 1994, and adjudicated wards of the court on October 18, 1994. On February 7, 1997, the State filed a petition to terminate respondent's parental rights alleging she failed to maintain reasonable interest, concern or responsibility for the girls' welfare; failed to protect them from injurious conditions; failed to make reasonable progress toward their return to her since the finding of abuse and neglect was entered; and was unable to discharge her duties as a parent because of mental impairment, mental illness or mental retardation *fn1 . 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(b), (D)(g), (D)(m), (D)(p) (West 1996).

The State first served written interrogatories on respondent's attorney on August 12, 1997. On September 17, 1997, the State served courtesy copies of those same interrogatories upon respondent's recently substituted counsel. On October 24, 1997, the trial court entered an order directing the respondent to answer the State's interrogatories within 21 days therefrom.

On December 2, 1997, based on respondent's failure to comply with the court's order and file answers to its interrogatories, the State filed a motion pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 219 asking the court to strike respondent's response to the supplemental petition, bar respondent from presenting a defense and enter default judgment against respondent. 166 Ill. 2d R. 219.

Shortly thereafter, respondent's attorney filed a motion to withdraw as attorney of record. At a hearing on January 14, 1998, counsel for respondent explained she sought to withdraw primarily because respondent refused to sign the answers to the State's interrogatories. The trial court asked respondent to state her reasons for refusing to sign the answers to interrogatories. Respondent stated: "[m]y girls been gone away from me too long and they steady wanting me to sign these papers and they not meeting me halfway, they not giving me unsupervised visits with my girl. [sic] That is all I am continuing to do is sign papers after all these years. My girls been gone since '93. I can't take them nowhere but they still want me to sign papers and stuff. I told her [respondent's attorney] the same thing. I refuse to sign the papers." The trial court admonished respondent about the possible serious repercussions of her failure to sign the document including the entry of orders adversely affecting the outcome of the trial. The judge explained that "by not signing these interrogatories it does not mean that you are voluntarily giving up your children, it means that you are fighting for your children." Nevertheless, respondent continued in her refusal to sign. Counsel's motion to withdraw was denied and the court then moved forward to a hearing on the State's Rule 219 motion.

In support of its motion, the State argued the answers were necessary so as to avoid surprise at trial about respondent's compliance with the service plan; the questions were not burdensome in that they asked where and when respondent may have completed services other than those offered or referred by DCFS. The Respondent's attorney countered that all other discovery had been complied with and the subject interrogatories were merely a reiteration of information already in the State's possession and therefore unnecessary and duplicative. She argued further that denying the respondent the right to put forth a defense is a drastic remedy where the termination of parental rights is at issue.

The trial court found respondent's refusal to sign the interrogatories was wilful and as a sanction, struck respondent's answer to the supplemental petition and barred her from presenting any evidence in her defense at trial. Respondent was limited to cross-examining the State's witnesses and reviewing the State's discovery and exhibits.


Respondent first contends the trial court was without subject matter jurisdiction to enter the order barring respondent from presenting a defense as the Juvenile Court Act does not specifically provide for such a sanction and thus the order was void ab initio.

Acts of the court that exceed the bounds of its subject matter jurisdiction are void. In re M.M., 156 Ill.2d 53, 64 (1993). Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the court's authority to entertain the question presented by the case as well as its power to grant the particular relief requested. In re M.M., 156 Ill.2d at 64; In re R.V., 288 Ill. App. 3d 860 (1997).

Juvenile court proceedings qualify as special statutory proceedings. In re M.M., 156 Ill.2d at 66. The scope and application of the Juvenile Court Act are defined solely by the legislature; there is no counterpart at common law or equity. In re M.M., 156 Ill.2d at 66; People v. P.H., 145 Ill.2d 209, 223 (1992). Where a court's power to act is controlled by statute, the court is governed by the rules of limited jurisdiction. In re M.M., 156 Ill.2d at 66. Therefore, it is axiomatic that courts exercising jurisdiction over the Juvenile Court Act must proceed within the strictures of the statute. In re M.M., 156 Ill.2d at 66.

However, the juvenile courts in the circuit court of Cook County are also bound by the circuit court rules. Our legislature has granted to the circuit courts the power to make rules of pleading, practice and procedure to aid in the orderly administration of justice. 735 ILCS 5/1-104(b) (West 1998) *fn2 . Pursuant to this grant of authority, the circuit court of Cook County has promulgated rule 19A.12 which relates specifically to the discovery process ...

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