Two Maryland men, lawyers and two judges who were overruled are still puzzling about the relationship of truth and justice as the result of a pair of paternity cases the Court of Appeals ruled on earlier this month.
In both cases, justice at the hands of the state's highest court ignored obvious truth. As a result of the court's ruling, the two men are being forced to make support payments for children they never fathered.
Here's what happened:
Tyrone D. Wilson thought he was doing the right thing when his girlfriend delivered a baby girl in August 1990, and then, a week or so later agreed in writing to pay her child support each week. But 2 1/2 years later, the Denton resident discovered -- and had verified by blood tests -- that he was not, in fact, the father of the child delivered by "Tandra S.," as she is referred to in court papers.
When he asked a Talbot County Circuit Court judge to let him off the hook for payments for a child he had nothing to do with, the judge agreed.
"John S. Jr.," a Baltimore resident, agreed in April 1986 to pay child support to a former girlfriend who claimed he had fathered a baby boy by her. This was problematic since the two hadn't had sex for about year before the birth. Yet he, too, agreed legally to make child-support payments.
In short, "Vandella H." lied to John S. and in court testimony that accompanied his original paternity agreement. She admitted to having lied, in fact, six years later, when John S. went to court to get free of making his payments. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge thought John S. had a valid point, too.
But both men received a surprise earlier this month from the Court of Appeals. The state's highest court ruled 5-2 that the Maryland's paternity law requires both to continue making payments.
Rather than acknowledging who really fathered the children, the court's majority opted to decide the case on a much narrower ground: Neither man had objected to his original child-support agreement within the 30 days Maryland's paternity law allows for such appeals.
The judges also ruled that neither man had been able to satisfy legal requirements of proving that their earlier paternity agreements resulted from "fraud, mistake or irregularity;" the 30 days were what mattered.
"It's not fair," said Mr. Wilson, a 29-year-old carpenter, when he learned of the appellate court's ruling. "This is one law that
stinks. How would [the judges] like it if this happened to them?"
"They say on TV, 'Don't take the law into your own hands. Take them to court,' " Mr. Wilson continued. "I don't know about that any more. This can make somebody go crazy."
John S. opted to continue his anonymity, but his attorney, La'Verne D. Wiley, summed up the ruling this way: "Morally and equitably, [the ruling is] an injustice. These are men who are obviously not responsible for these children, and that defies justice. It defies common sense."
Ms. Wiley said her client may appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Part of the reasoning behind the decision, according to the majority opinion written by Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy and released Oct. 7, was the law's concern that prolonging paternity cases could increase the likelihood that a child could be left "fatherless and without support."
In Mr. Wilson's case, however, court documents show that Tandra S. has since had another child by a different man. And in the second case, Vandella subsequently had a another baby with the real father of John S.'s child, court records show. Neither woman could be reached for comment.
Mr. Wilson's case eventually reached the Court of Appeals after he hired Eastern Shore lawyer Harry Sadoff, who successfully argued before Talbot County Circuit Judge William S. Horne that blood tests would determine if Mr. Wilson was the child's father.
The blood tests excluded Mr. Wilson as the biological father, and Judge Horne set aside the paternity agreement. The ruling allowed Mr. Wilson, who was working in a chicken-processing plant, to stop making child support payments.
Judge Horne says he was aware that, by law, he should not have granted the request for blood tests. Defendants in fatherhood cases have 30 days from signing a paternity agreement to request a jury trial or blood tests. But, Judge Horne said in an interview, some courts in other state jurisdictions were allowing the tests.
"I felt there should be uniformity throughout the state," he said, "and there was not."
Once he had the test results in hand, Judge Horne said, he had no choice but to relieve Mr. Wilson of his child-support obligations.
The case did not end there, however. Talbot County Deputy State's Attorney Marie Elise Hill appealed Judge Horne's ruling.
As a result, the Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Horne erred by allowing the blood tests. It also reaffirmed previous legal rulings that the court system must provide a final settlement to paternity cases by ending legal disputes within the 30-day period.
By noting that Mr. Wilson had voluntarily signed the original paternity agreement, the court decided that he had waived his lTC rights to a trial and to obtaining a blood test.
In the case of John S., Baltimore's Social Services Department had pushed for an appeal despite the fact that Vandella and the real father of her children agreed under oath that John S. had no fatherly responsibilities.
The Court of Appeals' majority was not unanimous. Two appeals judges wrote in a dissenting opinion that the high court's decision "defies common sense."
And Paula Peters, an Annapolis attorney not involved in either case but who routinely handles paternity cases, described the court's decision as "form over substance."
Judge Horne said he was satisfied with the ruling, in that it reaffirmed an old Maryland legal standard for when blood tests can be used in paternity disputes. But, he added, he is not entirely comfortable with how the decision will affect Mr. Wilson.
"The injustice is that there is a man out there who is not the father but who is paying support," he said, "and there is a man out there who is the father but is not paying."
Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who handled the "John S." case in Baltimore Circuit Court, said the appeals court decision underscored the legal system's desire to arrive at final and conclusive settlements, particularly in matters of family law.
If courts did not resolve these legal disputes and move on to other cases, he said, judges would face "chaos in the system."
"On the other hand, there is a need for the law to relate to the real world. To the extent that the public wants the law to reflect truth, the decision may fall short. To the extent that the public wants to law to reflect certainty, it doesn't fall short."
To make matters worse for Mr. Wilson, he did not know about the court's decision until a reporter spoke with him last week. He had not heard from his lawyer, because Mr. Sadoff died Aug. 30, before the judges announced their decision.
And, according to the Talbot County State's Attorney's Office, Mr. Wilson not only will be required to resume making child support payments to Tandra S., he may have to make back payments covering the period since last summer when Judge Horne set aside the original paternity agreement.
"When it rains, it pours," he said.
William Thompson is a reporter in the Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun.