The state Court of Appeals, pointing out that people with court-appointed guardians are allowed to marry in Minnesota, ruled Tuesday that a lower court failed to meet the burden of proof when it barred Michael O’Brien from someday exchanging wedding vows with the woman he has been dating for more than three years.
Describing marriage as a “fundamental right” afforded to anyone who has the “sufficient mental capacity” to understand it in contractual terms, the appeals panel said the District Court must review the case anew because it did not look deeply enough into O’Brien’s ability “to understand the meaning, rights and obligations of marriage.”
The case is not about whether O’Brien would make a good husband. O’Brien’s attorney Steve Beseres acknowledged soon after the ruling that “Mike is a nice kid with significant problems. But they’ve allowed people in prison and all sorts of different situations [to marry].”
Judith and Timothy O’Brien have been guardians for their son since 2004, when the court cited his “serious, persistent mental disorder,” namely struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mild mental disability and being bipolar.
Judith O’Brien testified in the lower court about Michael having shot out cabin windows with a BB gun, once grabbing the steering wheel of a group home van and other misbehavior while he was a minor.
As guardians, the O’Briens take care of all of Michael’s daily living needs, as well as his medical and psychological care. Michael has said he gets along fine with his parents, but he feels they put too many limitations on him.
A psychiatrist on behalf of the parents said Michael functions at a level below an IQ of 71 and his “overall broad independence” is that of someone slightly less than 10 years old.
Michael’s attorney said it’s his clients hope that he and his fiancée, a client in a Twin Cities special-needs program, can someday live in a group home for couples. Meantime, Michael sees her a couple of times a week at her residence and stays over once a month.
The O’Briens’ legal challenge is preventing the couple from setting a wedding date, Beseres said.
The Appeals Court ruling notes that Michael’s fiancée described their relationship in testimony as “very loving,” while Michael contributed that “he is in love with her.”
It concluded “Because the district court did not make sufficient findings to establish that Michael lacks the capacity to understand the meaning, rights, and obligations of marriage, we reverse the district court’s declaratory judgment that Michael lacks the competence to marry …”
Tim O’Brien expressed disappointment with the appeals court ruling, noting that his son has had self-control difficulties for many years that sometimes erupted into “incoherent rage.”
Although he didn’t reject the notion that Mark might someday be well enough to wed, Tim O’Brien said, “At this point in time, in my opinion, he lacks the ability to comprehend what a marriage contract entails.”
Beseres said he believes his client’s parents have their heart in the right place but are on shaky legal ground.
“I don’t think anybody has any ill will,” the attorney said. “You do anything you can for your kids.”