RIVERSIDE, Calif. — When the state separated the identical twins as infants, his biological family fought to keep him — and lost.

When, as a boy, his foster mother moved to adopt him, his biological family fought — and lost.

But now, after being exiled from Ryan Morris’ life for close to two decades, his biological family has won a major victory in court — a victory it says is a step toward righting a lifetime of wrongs, but which Morris’ lawyers argue is his worst fears coming true, and a blow to the rights of people with disabilities everywhere.

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Last week, Riverside Superior Court Judge Sunshine Sykes removed Morris’ husband, Sean Spicer, as Morris’ legal guardian. She ordered the Public Guardian’s Office to take over that duty, at least for now, and to find Morris a new home.

Morris, 25, has the intellectual ability of a young child. He married Spicer, a man of regular intelligence 18 years his senior, in 2014, in a ceremony that Morris mistook for a baptism. His biological family, which lives in Orange County, feared he was the victim of sexual abuse and began fighting to oust Spicer as legal guardian in 2016.

This highly unusual case raises profoundly uncomfortable issues, pitting two fundamental rights squarely against one another: the hard-won right for people with disabilities to marry and have sex lives, just like everyone else, and their right to be protected from abuse and undue influence. The nettlesome issues were probed in a three-part series by the Southern California News Group in 2017.

“Based upon all of the evidence, including the wedding video, it appears that Ryan does not have the mental capacity to understand what a marriage is and therefore does not have the capacity to understand consent to be and remain married,” the judge wrote.

“That in and of itself places him in a vulnerable position as Sean is not only his spouse, but his conservator.”

Decision not made lightly

Sykes wrote that she did not render this decision lightly, and spent a great deal of time since the trial began in 2018 contemplating this case.

“There is no doubt that Ryan loves his spouse, Sean, and Sean loves his spouse, Ryan,” Sykes wrote. “Also there is no doubt that Ryan’s biological family and adoptive family love Ryan. If this case was solely about love, it would be an easy call. But this case goes beyond love. …

“Sometimes choices made based upon love are not always choices made based upon best interest. Love can cloud what may be the best choice for the person one loves.”

Sykes had no doubt that Spicer wants to fulfill his duties as conservator and spouse to Morris, but said the evidence proves he’s incapable of doing so.

Abusive behavior

“The lines between spouse and conservator have been blurred to such an extent that it is no longer in Ryan’s best interest to have Sean in the role of conservator,” Sykes wrote. “This is evidenced by numerous instances of abusive behavior.”

That includes Spicer threatening to send Morris back to his adoptive mother when he misbehaved, threatening to take his ring off and end the marriage, threatening to send Morris for emergency mental health treatment, and punishing Morris by restricting visits with his biological family members and taking his phone away to prevent contact with them.

Spicer also continued to make their home in Romoland with Spicer’s parents, despite violent episodes between Morris and Spicer’s mother, and Morris and Spicer himself. The judge also cited an episode when Spicer’s mother attempted to commit suicide by slitting her wrists in front of Morris.

“(I)t is clear that continuing to live in the Spicer home is detrimental to Ryan,” Sykes wrote. “With the conservator hat on, it would be in the best interest of Ryan for Sean to move Ryan from the residence, but with the spouse hat on it may be difficult to do. Hence another conflict. A conflict that at present causes grave concern for the well-being of Ryan.”

Morris is fortunate to have so many people that love and care for him, she wrote, and it’s evident that no one purposely intends to harm him or cause him distress. But the battle over him needs to end to bring stability and peace back into his life.

Visitation for families, spouse

She ordered that Morris will have visitation with his adoptive and biological families as well as with his spouse, “to be conducted in a therapeutic setting.”

Morris’ attorneys said they would file an appeal.

“Our client is very disappointed in this order,” said attorney Jack Osborn. “He has viewed this litigation as incredibly threatening to him and believed that the point is to take him away from the person he loves — and that’s exactly where we are. It’s his worst fears coming to pass.”

Morris initiated the idea of getting married, understands what marriage is and is angry that his biological relatives are trying to separate him from Spicer, Osborn said.

“We respect the attention the judge has given this, but we disagree with her analysis,” he said. “Ryan has the right to choose who he is married to, and the right to choose who is his conservator. California law is pretty clear that a spouse has the right to be a conservator.”

To Morris’ biological family, this was a long time coming.

“Judge Sykes’ order … was a huge step in the right direction to help Ryan finally live a life without all the abuse and fear he’s been living with — a life instead filled with encouragement, self-dignity and determination,” said his aunt, Monica Mukai, by email.

“We are sincerely grateful Judge Sykes truly cares about Ryan’s best interest and will take all necessary steps to protect Ryan’s civil and human rights … reaffirming our country’s commitment to the principles of justice for all!” she wrote. “It’s taken us decades to free Ryan from the abuse but together, as we all speak out, we can stop the abuse!”

The judge set a hearing on whether to make the public guardian’s temporary conservatorship permanent on July 19.

“Life is fluid and ever changing,” the judge wrote. “What may be in Ryan’s best interest today may change over time. I do know that this change will be hard not only for Ryan but for those that love him, but this change is temporary, we do not know what the future holds for Ryan, but we all want that future to be filled with love, happiness, and peace.”

© 2019 The Orange County Register
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