Friday, December 16, 2016

Williams Institute marks a very personal 40th anniversary

I want to express my deep thanks to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School for honoring the 40th anniversary of a law review article that Nan Hunter and I co-wrote  and published in 1976 entitled The Custody Rights of Lesbian Mothers: Legal Theory and Litigation Strategy.

Williams sponsored a webinar at which both Nan and I spoke, with commentary for Courtney Joslin of UC Davis Law School and Kim Pearson of Gonzaga Law School.  You can watch it here:   And these were my remarks:

            The cutting edge of the law affecting lesbian mothers today lies not in the cases that Nan and I wrote about 40 years ago, but in disputes that call into question the definition of parent, questions like: When does intent or conduct create parentage in the absence of biology, or can a child have three parents, or four?  But the increased visibility and acceptance of same-sex relationships has not stopped the phenomenon we described in the 1970’s:  a man or woman entering a heterosexual marriage, having children, and only later coming out as gay or lesbian.
            The formal law in those cases has changed since the 1970s.  No state asserts that a parent in a same-sex relationship is per se unfit.  In fact all states say that a parent’s same-sex relationship itself is not sufficient reason to deny that parent custody.  Yet such parents continue to have reasons for concern in contested cases, even in states with overall supportive law.  In the short time I have today, I am going to describe one such case and mention the reasoning of other cases.  I also want to take special note of the vulnerability of transgender parents.
            Last month, the Washington State Supreme Court heard argument in Black v Black.  Charles and Rachel Black were married for roughly 20 years and had three sons.  They raised the children in a conservative Christian home and the children attended conservative Christian private schools. Rachel was a stay-at-home mom. When the children were approximately 12, 9, and 4, Rachel told Charles she was a lesbian.  Up through the end of the divorce proceedings, three years later, the parents lived within the same home, in separate sleeping quarters, although Rachel began a relationship with a woman.
            The parents each requested the equivalent of primary physical custody and decision-making authority over education.  Rachel wanted the children to attend public school rather than a school that teaches that homosexuality is a sin. 
            I’m sure you can see where this is going.  The Guardian Ad Litem criticized what she called Rachel’s “choice” to leave the marriage and live with a female partner and said that her “choice” caused controversy and confusion. Although the statute allowed a court to consider a CHILD’s religious beliefs in deciding custody, there was no evidence presented about the children’s actual religious beliefs.  Rather, the trial court said that the father was the more stable parent, because he would remain in the family home, keep the children in the same school and maintain their religious upbringing.  The court also ordered no contact with Rachel’s partner and no exposure to anything involving homosexuality until approved by the therapist.
            Washington state has long had law prohibiting restrictions based on a parent’s sexual orientation.  A trial court cannot impose restrictions “designed to artificially ameliorate changes in a child’s life” or simply because it believes the restrictions will make the post- marriage transition easier for the child. So the Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s imposition of restrictions.  But it upheld the decision giving primary physical custody to Charles, finding no abuse of discretion and specifically crediting the GAL’s recommendation based on the children’s need for stability.  It also upheld Charles’s sole decisionmaking authority on the children’s education, thereby guaranteeing they will remain in a school environment that teaches them that their mother is sinful.  It is that appeals court ruling that is currently before the Washington Supreme Court. 
            Notably, Charles does not maintain in his brief, nor did his attorney at oral argument, that there is any problem with Rachel being a lesbian.  Nor does he seek to reimpose restrictions on her visitation. Charles once referred to Rachel as a “militant lesbo,” but he later said he regretted that comment and that it was made out of anger and hurt.  He now focuses completely on the argument that custody with him serves the best interests of these children, given the upbringing they received during the marriage and their need for stability. But completely absent from the court rulings to date, in this case and in other recent appellate decisions, is any articulation of a heterosexual parent’s obligation and responsibility to assist the children in adjusting to having a gay or lesbian parent. Charles quotes the GAL’s position that keeping the children in their schools was “safe from an emotional perspective.”  But this is a twisted conception of emotional safety, one that ignores the teachings the children receive in school about their mother.
            In a number of other cases within the past decade, appeals courts have upheld custody awards to a heterosexual father over a lesbian mother based on a child having a difficult time adjusting to the mother’s same-sex relationship or even just feeling uncomfortable around the mother’s partner.  There is no doubt that some children do feel this way.  But not one opinion describing such facts places responsibility for the child’s difficulties on a heterosexual parent for refusal to assist the child’s adjustment to a new reality.  A gay parent can be faulted for allegedly placing her own needs above her child’s, while no heterosexual parent has been faulted for placing his needs above his child’s when he fails to ease the child’s acceptance of the mother’s new relationship.  Until courts do assess the non-gay parent’s suitability based on his willingness to facilitate the child’s acceptance of having a gay parent, lesbian mothers and gay fathers remain vulnerable to losing custody and facing visitation restrictions. 
Perhaps the most I am willing to say today is that when a parent has stable employment and housing and has not had multiple partners, and when her children show no signs of distress and do not oppose remaining with her, then she can be more confident than her counterparts 40 years ago. In the absence of any of those factors, she still faces, in more subtle ways, the vulnerability we wrote about.  I also want to alert everyone to a possible future issue.  Until the last few years, disapproving courts have been able to lump all same-sex relationships with unmarried different-sex relationships, and to restrict a child’s exposure to any nonmarital partner, something courts have repeatedly said is distinct from the parent’s sexual orientation.  Now that all same-sex couples have the option to marry, we may see overt disapproval of those who fail to do so.
            For my second point today, I want to talk about parents who transition after or at the time of divorce.  We reported in our 1976 article about the case of Christian v. Randall.  In that case, a mother had custody of her four daughters and then transitioned.  A Colorado trial court changed custody of the children to their father, against their wishes.  The appeals court reversed, finding that the “transsexual change” had had no adverse impact on the children.  I could never have imagined that, forty years later, that case would remain the single most definitive victory for a transgender parent in a contested custody dispute.  Notable in the case, however, is that the children were all thriving and wanted to remain with their mother.   Those factors are not dependably true in any child-related dispute, let alone one involving children’s reactions to a parent’s gender transition.
            I can’t be too blunt about this.  Transgender parents are facing a landscape much like the one gay and lesbian parents faced 40 years ago.  In the section of our article on litigation strategy, we began with the recommendation that the case be kept out of court.  If you open the fine materials available today to assist transgender parents and their attorneys, like Jennifer Levi’s Transgender Family Law, you will find the same advice.  A necessary component of such a strategy includes careful consideration of how both the spouse (or ex-spouse) and the children are made aware of the impending transition.  There are minefields everywhere. 
In one case a nine year child went to visit her father in another state, observed his “feminine features,” and told her mother she did not want to visit again.  The mother made no effort to assist the child’s acceptance of having a transgender parent.  The child did not see her father again until the day, six years later, when she testified in court that she wanted to be adopted by her mother’s husband so that she could have a real father.  The effect of that adoption was to terminate the rights of the transgender parent, which the court did by finding by clear and convincing evidence that the parent had inflicted emotional injury on the child.
In another case, where a mother and father began with 50-50 joint physical custody, the mother filed for sole custody based solely on the father’s transgender status and impending gender reassignment surgery.  The trial court granted the mother’s petition, once again invoking the children’s need for stability and noting that the impact of the father’s upcoming surgery was “uncertain.”  But no doubt mindful that the legal standard did not permit modification based on transgender status alone, the trial court made some other factual findings in support of its order.  This allowed the appeals court to affirm, citing the ubiquitous “no abuse of discretion” standard, and provoking a scathing dissent.
The positive trajectory for gay and lesbian parents over the last 40 years may be a harbinger that transgender parents will find greater acceptance in the future.  But recognizing the circumstances under which gay and lesbian parents remain vulnerable is cautionary, and reinforces the importance that all such parents find well-prepared counsel before a dispute with a former spouse escalates into contested litigation.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

It's a trifecta! Massachusetts find nonbio mom to be full legal parent

After wins in New York and Maryland, Massachusetts becomes the third state in three months to recognize the reality of life for children planned for and then raised by same-sex couples.  Today's win in Partanen v. Gallagher is the most satisfying of the three, finding that Karen Partanen is the full legal parent of the two children born to her partner.  The couple planned for those children together, participated in the IVF process that resulted in Gallagher's pregnancy, and raised the children as two parents until they separated when the first child was 5 years old and the second about 21 months old.

The opinion approves several critical legal principles:  Parentage statutes must be read in a gender-neutral manner.  Therefore, Massachusetts statutes concerning parentage of a child born to "a man and woman" not married to each other apply equally to the two unmarried women in this case (and, as a footnote makes clear, to two unmarried men); the two children in this case were therefore born to both Gallagher and Partanen.  The children would have two legal parents if their parents had been married, and the court will not read other statutes in a way that keeps children with unmarried parents from having two parents. Partenan's claim does not infringe upon Gallagher's right to form a family as a single parent because the children were not born to her as a single parent; they had two parents from the very beginning. Also, statutes presuming parentage based on living with a child's mother and jointly holding the child out as the child of both parents are not defeated by the lack of a biological connection between the "holding out" parent and the child.

Kudos to GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto, who also gets a huge amount of credit for the passage of pathbreaking parentage legislation in Maine that took effect July 1, 2016.  That legislation should be a model for other states looking to reform their parentage laws for all children.  Under the Maine statute, the nonbio parents in the New York and Maryland cases, as well as Karen Partanen in this case, would all be the legal parents of their children.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Beyond Marriage Ten Years Later

The Beyond Marriage statement from  2006 has a new home on the web here.  We'll be talking about it at the CLAGS After Marriage conference tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Alison D. overruled! Children of same-sex couples in New York now have TWO parents

When I wrote about the New York Court of Appeals 2010 ruling in Debra H., I observed that the Court had breathed new life into the long-discredited legal status of illegitimacy.  A child born to a married (or civilly united) lesbian couple in New York had two parents; a child born to an unmarried couple had one parent.  That ends today.  The New York Court of Appeals overruled its 25-year-old opinion in Alison D. v. Virginia M. (and the portion of Debra H. that relied on it) and established the rule that the definition of "parent" for purposes of seeking custody of a child includes someone who enters into a pre-conception agreement to conceive and raise a child as co-parents.

That rule settled the cases before the court, In re Brooke S.B. and In re Estrellita A., because such pre-conception agreements existed in both those cases. But fortunately the Court did not stop there. Instead, it said that it was leaving for another day the test that might be appropriate when a biological or adoptive parent facilitates the creation of a parent-child relationship with her partner after the child's conception.

The best thing about the opinion is its definitive inclusion of unmarried couples.  The worst thing about it is a footnote that says the statute would not allow a child to have more than two parents.

My biggest regret:  That Paula Ettelbrick did not live to see this today.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the biological child of his mother's deceased husband...and why that matters to same-sex couples

So it seems the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was born nine months after his mother's marriage, was actually the biological child of a different man with whom his mother's had sexual relations.

That may seem to have nothing to do with same-sex couples, but it does.  Right now courts across the country are grappling with whether a married woman's female spouse is the legal parent of the child she bears.  Phoenix family law practitioner Claudia Work told me that, on the same day this past week, two different Arizona judges in two different cases decided that issue in diametrically opposing orders; one applied the presumption and determined that the spouse was a parent and the other said the word "husband" in the parentage statute applied only to a male spouse until the legislature says otherwise.

It's the marital presumption that made the husband of the Archbishop's mother his legal father.  No one rebutted that presumption.  End of story.  At least end of both the legal story and lived story of this family.

This week the New York Times ran a story whose main point was that not so many children are actually the result of extra-marital liaisons.  But to say that the number is not the 8% to 10% of urban legal is actually not to state that there are few such children.  A major research study estimated the number at 1-2% of births to married woman (this can sometimes include unmarried women where the male partner has a high degree of certainty that he is the biological father).  In 2014, there were almost 4 million children born in the US.  Almost 59% of those births were to married women -- a total of almost 2.4 million.  Even if only 1% of those children are not biologically related to their mother's husband, that is 24,000 children per year in the US.  If it is 2%, that's 48,000.

Demographer Gary Gates, formerly of the Williams Institute, estimated from the 2008-2010 American Community Survey that 2% of women in same-sex couples reported giving birth the previous year.  The 2010 Census showed  almost 333,000 female same-sex couples, which translates into about 6,600 children born per year to those couples.

And so to my point.  The fact that a woman's female spouse is not her child's biological parent is decidedly not a justification for denying her the marital presumption.  If someone outside the marriage tries to rebut the presumption, well, resolving that dispute can wait until there actually is a dispute.  Until rebutted, that spouse is a parent, just as every husband is, even though four times as many children -- or maybe double that -- are born each year to married heterosexual couples where the husband is not the biological father.  In almost every state the husband's lack of biological tie does not, in every imaginable circumstance, automatically disestablish his parentage.  The law is more nuanced that that.

And so it should be for married lesbian couples.  Both are the child's parents from the moment of birth until a court says otherwise.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Maryland high court hears important oral argument -- and the other side offers no law

The Maryland Court of Appeals heard argument yesterday in Conover v. Conover (oral argument here).  By now the facts are not extraordinary:  Brittany Eckel and Michelle Conover had a child together using anonymous donor semen from Shady Grove Fertility Center, implanted in Brittany.  Jaxon was born in April, 2010 and given Michelle's last name.  Sometime after the couple split up, Brittany denied that Michelle was Jaxon's parent.  A couple of other facts worth noting.  The couple married when Jaxon was five months old and Brittany changed her last name to Conover.  This should not have any legal significance.  It does highlight, however, that the Maryland "artificial insemination" statute makes a consenting husband the legal parent of a child conceived by his wife with donor semen -- a statute that I would bet the farm the Maryland court would apply to lesbian couple married before the child's birth.  But it is the planning of the child together that should matter, not the couple's marital status. Also, Michelle has since transitioned and is now Michael Conover.  This should also have no legal significance, although it does point out the absurdity of refusing to read the words "father" and "husband" gender neutrally.  (By that I mean that the statutes that create a presumption that a man is a legal father should apply equally to a woman asserting she is a legal mother; otherwise Michael now gets to use them because he is male but could not while he was Michelle and female).  I continue to use the name Michelle in this post, only because that is how he is identified in the court proceedings below and in the briefs in the case.

This case highlights how state specific parentage laws are. As I point out here, if Jaxon had been born in a DC hospital he would have a birth certificate naming both Brittany and Michelle as his parents. There is a good legal argument for Michelle's parentage under Maryland law, as Jer Walter ably argued yesterday.  What was more surprising, however, was how poorly Brittany's lawyer argued. He told the court he accepted Brittany's case pro bono for the sake of the child, and offered "common sense" as the reason the statutes should not be read to give Jaxon's two mothers.  He had to acknowledge that Maryland law makes a husband the father of his wife's child born after donor insemination, but he said that in such cases there was the possibility that he was the child's biological father.  This can only mean that to the outside world it might look like there was such a possibility. That was enough for him.  Frankly, he only said out loud what many who oppose parenting by same-sex couples believe -- that a child has one mother and one father, end of story.  His legal position was that any change to that needed to come from the legislature.  He essentially told the judges not to do their job, which is to apply existing law to the cases that come before them, even if they are cases the legislators who enacted existing statutes did not contemplate.  He invoked Justice Scalia numerous times, again not a legal argument about Maryland law.

The court actually has two issues before it.  One is whether Michelle is Jaxon's parent.  The other is whether to overturn its eight-year-old opinion in Janice M. v. Margaret K. that refused to recognize de facto parents in Maryland.  Only two of the Janice M. judges remain on the court, and the opinion's one dissenter, Judge Raker, is sitting by designation in the Conover case.  Margaret Kahlor, the losing mom in Janice M., was in the courtroom for the argument yesterday. Janice M. should be overturned, but this court should not pass up the opportunity to read Maryland statutes to confer parentage on both members of a couple -- same-sex or different-sex -- who use donor insemination to have a child.

A special shout out to Katie Wright, who was my co-counsel on the brief we wrote on behalf of family law professors from Maryland and elsewhere, urging the court to find that Jaxon has two mothers.