Vermont Supreme Court rules in favor of lesbian parent

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(Host) The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a lesbian parent who wanted the right to visit her child.

The high court says Vermont courts and not those in Virginia have exclusive jurisdiction over the case.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The ruling in Vermont conflicts with a series of decisions in Virginia courts, which said that Virginia law against gay marriage controlled the case.

But a unanimous Vermont Supreme Court said Vermont law supersedes because the couple was joined here in a civil union. Dooley said that means Vermont family law covers their 2003 separation and later child custody disputes.

Jennifer Levi is the lawyer for Janet Miller-Jenkins, the woman who sought the right to visit her child. Levi says the case is not that different from many any other child custody battles.

(Levi) “This case is not unusual. In other words, there’s a lot of cases in which a couple has a child and there’s a determination that one of the parent should have a continuing relationship with that child once the relationship breaks up and the other parent who’s not happy about that takes the kid and goes to another state. And federal law, which is called the Parental Kidnapping and Protection Act, is specifically designed to address just that case.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Surpreme Court agreed. In the opinion, Justice John Dooley wrote that the case was a — quote – “straightforward interstate jurisdictional dispute over custody.” He said that the federal law clearly supports the Vermont courts having control.

The case was closely watched by both conservative and gay rights groups. But at the center of the dispute is a 3-year-old girl.

The girl’s biological mother is Lisa Miller. In 2000, she and Janet Miller-Jenkins came to Vermont for a civil union.

Three years later, they split up and a Vermont family court dissolved their union. The family court later granted Janet Miller-Jenkins visitation rights.

But Lisa Miller – who has renounced her homosexuality – has used the Virginia courts to block her ex-partner from seeing the child.

Matthew Staver is founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, which represents Lisa Miller. He says the case is headed for the U-S Supreme Court.

(Staver) “I think it illustrates the clash between states. When one state adopts a civil union law or a same sex marriage law, they’re not autonomous and they inevitably clash with other states. So the real issue at the end of the day is whether one state may impose its same sex union law or marriage law on another states. We don’t believe it can, and we think the Supreme Court at the end of the day will agree with us.”

(Dillon) But Levi says it’s premature to predict that the case will reach the U-S Supreme Court. She says the Virginia court has stayed further rulings until the Vermont court acted.

(Levi) “What Vermont said is that the family court had jurisdiction to issue the order of visitation. And that’s a matter of both federal and state law. So the Virginia Court of Appeals, which has said it was going to wait to issue a decision until the Vermont court ruled, may well issue an opinion that’s consistent with this court’s order.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Supreme Court also upheld a contempt order against Lisa Miller for failing to allow the visitation.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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