Suellyn Scarnecchia - A Courageous Voice for Children
by Toni Shears
36 University of Michigan Law Quadrangle Notes 20 (1993)

[Note: we will study extensively Scarnecchia's representation of Roberta and Jan DeBoer during the second half of the semester and use the "Baby Jessica" case as the basis of several in-class simulation exercises.]

Once in a while, a case comes along that can refocus your whole career in law. For Suellyn Scarnecchia, that case came in the small form of a child known as Jessica.

Scarnecchia and students in the Law School's Child Advocacy Law Clinic represented Roberta and Jan DeBoer in their struggle to adopt the child they've lived with and loved for two years. The girl's biological parents, Cara and Daniel Schmidt of Iowa, fought to block the adoption and reclaim custody.

Cara, then single, waived parental rights to her daughter at birth in February 1991, but she named the wrong man as father. Within weeks, she reconsidered; after the DeBoers brought the baby back to Michigan, she told Schmidt that he was the real father, and they launched a legal battle to reclaim the child. After three Iowa courts confirmed the Schmidts' parental rights and granted them custody, the DeBoers sought the clinic's help.

In Michigan courts and the glare of intense publicity, Scarnecchia and the DeBoers argued that the Iowa rulings weren't valid because they failed to consider the child's best interests. In July, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the child must go back to the Schmidts in Iowa. Scarnecchia, Professor Kent Syverud and attorneys at the Washington, D.C., firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the transfer order and hear the case. The Court refused, and in a tear-drenched parting Aug. 2, Scarnecchia handed the child over to the Schmidts.

Scarnecchia, a clinical professor of law, normally teaches litigation and guides clinic students who actually argue cases in court. Suddenly she found herself litigating under the bright lights of CourtTV cameras, taking late-night calls from fact checkers at The New Yorker, and getting harassment calls at home from Schmidt supporters.

The thoughtful, low-key professor says she's learned a lot from the high-profile, high-stress case. The experience gave her new perspectives on the legal status of children's rights, her work and herself. Most important, she says, "I've really come to see that a child's voice is nearly silent in court. I'm thinking about ways to change that.

"There's no question that this case has solidified my interest in child advocacy. I think sometimes an attorney needs a major case to bring out strengths and goals and this is mine."

* * *

Although disappointed in the law now, Scarnecchia has known since age 14 that she wanted to battle injustice as a lawyer. Once in law school, she was drawn to the women's movement and served as president of the Women Law Student Association. After graduation in 1981, though, she shelved her interest in family law and practiced employment discrimination law in private practice in Battle Creek instead.

"I kept away from family law because I was aware that there was a sexist stereotype that it was a woman's field. I was worried that people wouldn't take me seriously as a litigator in that kind of practice. It's ironic that I'm getting all this publicity and attention for a child's case after all," she laughs.

Scarmecchia later served as Dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law and currently is Vice-President and General Counsel of the University of Michigan.