In that case, Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman granted lesbian partners, who each had a child, parental rights over both children. She reasoned, in part, that adultery does not disqualify a person from adopting, so neither should a person's sexual orientation.

Two loving parents, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, were "consistent with the children's best interest," wrote Friedman, who retired in 2002.

Her decision became the legal cornerstone for adoption by Maryland's gay residents, and the interpretation of that precedent has expanded to allow gay couples, like Dennis and McCoy, to jointly adopt children who are not biologically related to either partner.

"It was my understanding that it was the first time the issue had been brought to the court," said Friedman, whose decision garnered attention across Maryland from gay and lesbian residents who wanted to adopt.

Since the late 1990s, at least one judge in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Calvert counties has granted adoptions to same-sex couples, according to Scurti, who also teaches a course on sexual orientation and the law at the University of Maryland School of Law.

The list could be longer, he said, but researching adoption files is "almost next to impossible" because they are sealed. Often the only people who know the gender of the petitioners are judges and attorneys involved in the case.

But Baltimore has remained a more reliably gay-friendly venue. In other jurisdictions, even if one judge in a county has approved an adoption for a same-sex couple, the next couple might appear in front of a different judge who has the opposite opinion.

That happened in June 2000, when Montgomery County Circuit Judge Vincent E. Ferretti wrote an opinion denying a lesbian parental rights over her partner's natural child. It was his last written decision, he said in an interview, and after he filed the 18-page opinion he retired. Ferretti now lives in North Carolina.

"It was an issue for the legislature and not for the courts," Ferretti said.

He said he hoped the couple would file an appeal that would spur the legislature to change the law.

But that's not what happened. After he left the bench, the couple amended their petition and refiled it in Montgomery County. The amended case was assigned to Judge Paul A. McGuckian, who agreed with Ferretti: Maryland's law is silent on whether two unmarried people, regardless of sexual orientation, can adopt and, in this area of jurisprudence, law created from the bench cannot be a substitute for a statute from Annapolis.

In order to stop the couple filing an appeal — and possibly establishing a legal precedent that could prevent adoptions by same-sex couples — Baltimore City Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan reached out to the couple.

Come to Baltimore, he told the couple, and we will grant your adoption.

Kaplan, the chief judge for Baltimore's Circuit Court at that time, had instituted a unique procedure — called waiver of venue — that made nonresidents eligible to file adoption cases in the city.

"We had literally thousands of kids bouncing from foster care home to foster care home," said Kaplan, who retired in 2006. He believed that welcoming a wider pool of adoptive parents had the potential to reduce the number of children in need of permanent homes. "The most important thing in life is attachment," he said.

About that time, by coincidence, the Maryland attorney general's office wrote an advisory opinion that concluded nothing in the state's law prohibited same-sex couples from adopting.

From that point forward, word spread in the gay community and among attorneys about a same-sex couple being denied an adoption in liberal Montgomery County and about Kaplan's waiver-of-venue rule in Baltimore. The city became the place to adopt.

Kaplan "deserves a lot of credit for developing a procedure we follow today," said Susan Silber, a Takoma Park attorney who has represented many same-sex couples in adoption proceedings. "There's been a strong shared belief [among Baltimore's judges] that these adoptions are good for the children."

Scurti agreed, calling Kaplan an "institution" in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Still, the judges and attorneys who have made Baltimore a haven for gay families are concerned that their work could be dismantled.