In a precedent-setting decision on child visitation, a Maryland appeals court ruled yesterday that an ex-partner in a lesbian relationship can have similar legal standing to a stepparent.
Advocates for gay legal rights said the ruling was a big stride forward for gay men and lesbians who assume the role of parents to their partners' biological children. But they noted that it did not equate the legal status of a same-sex couple with that of a heterosexual couple.
"The key thing is finding that she had standing. That is a huge thing for most people in her situation," said Beatrice Dohrn, legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. in New York. She called the decision a "breakthrough ruling for gay men and lesbians."
While it's not "the whole ball of wax," she said, it was an improvement over court decisions in some other states -- Florida and New York among them -- which have not given ex-lovers in same-sex relationships a legal means to seek visitation with their former partner's biological children.
The ruling is similar to recent decisions in New Jersey and Massachusetts, Dohrn said, and the number of cases involving the issue is on the rise.
In this case, however, the precedent will not win visits with the 5-year-old girl that the ex-partner sought. The Court of Special Appeals upheld a Montgomery County judge's ruling that said the child was having emotional difficulties that precluded the visits.
But by giving her the legal status to seek visitation, the court left the door open for the ex-partner to try to win visits in the future, said her attorney, Dorrance D. Dickens.
The court omitted the names of the former Bethesda couple in its ruling, and neither woman could be reached for comment yesterday.
Calling the case "very significant," Dickens said the court recognized de facto parents, and "in this case, we have a de facto parent."
Though the 22-page decision written by Judge James R. Eyler comes from the intermediate appellate court, it is a published ruling that can be cited as precedent unless overturned by the Court of Appeals.
Dickens said he doubted his client would ask the state's highest court to hear an appeal.
"My opinion is that the court did not make it a gay rights or lesbian rights issue," said Robert Case Liotta, attorney for the woman who bore the child.
Rather, he said, he saw it as another in a line of Maryland cases and state laws that say people other than biological or adoptive parents can pursue visitation.
After establishing that the woman had the right, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Patrick Woodward looked at what was in the child's best interest and found that the continued relationship with the biological mother's former partner was harmful to the child.
Though he noted that experts could not pinpoint the cause of the girl's troubling behavior, Woodward said he suspected that the biological mother destroyed what he saw as a good relationship between her child and former partner and that the woman's hatred for her former partner caused much of the girl's problems.
The two women began a relationship about 1990. Using artificial insemination, one bore a daughter in 1994. In 1997, she took the child and moved out. She ended the regular visits in 1998 amid worry for the girl's behavior and after an argument with her ex-partner.
The other woman sued for custody and visitation. The judge granted temporary visitation, but that ended a year ago as the birth mother complained that the child's emotional health was worsening and a court-appointed expert said the child was troubled. The other woman appealed the lower court decision.