Appeals court rejects legislators’ intervention in lesbian couple’s child custody dispute

The state Court of Appeals has rejected an attempt by 52 state representatives and 19 state senators to intervene in a divorce dispute over child custody between Sabrina Witt and Erica Witt, two Knoxville women who were married in Washington, D.C., reports the News Sentinel.

The opinion, written by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Michael Swiney also declares that the legislators should pay costs involved in appealing the trial court’s decision dismissing their motion to intervene.

“While the (legislators) apparently wish to force the actual parties to the suit, Sabrina and Erica, to continue their dispute in court, those parties have chosen not to do so,” Swiney wrote.

“Put simply, the divorce case is over, and there is no lawsuit left in which to intervene,” he wrote.

Knox County 4th Circuit Court Judge Greg McMillan – in the first such ruling in the state – in May granted Erica Witt the legal rights of a husband and father of the couple’s daughter, conceived through artificial insemination.

The couple were the first in the state to seek a divorce after the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2015 conferred marital rights to same-sex couples.

If Erica Witt had been a man, her parentage of the couple’s daughter would not have been an issue. There’s a specific law on artificial insemination cases, but it was written well before the same-sex ruling and referred to a “husband and wife.”

Erica Witt’s attorney, Virginia Schwamm, argued the Supreme Court’s ruling made that law unconstitutional.

Lawmakers, using a conservative legal group, sought to intervene in the Witts’ divorce – while at the same time pushing through a law that ordered courts to give “natural meaning” to words such as mother and father.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery opined that law was unconstitutional. He also argued the state’s law on artificial insemination was flawed, too – unless judges used “gender-neutral” labels instead of “husband and wife” or “mother and father.”

McMillan refused to allow the legislators to intervene. They appealed.

The appellate court this week backed McMillan’s decision, saying the legislators had no right to involve themselves in citizens’ private lives.

“All of these issues are private rights and claims personal to the parties to the (divorce),” the opinion stated. “The actual case, a divorce, simply does not involve issues of great importance to the public and the administration of justice.”

Note: The full opinion is HERE. Previous post HERE.


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