Judge ignores ‘natural and ordinary meaning’ of ‘husband;’ rejects legislator intervention in lesbian divorce

Knox County Circuit Court Judge Greg McMillan has granted a woman the legal rights of a husband, reports the News Sentinel, changing an earlier ruling to stand in apparent direct conflict with the “natural and ordinary meaning” law recently approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam.

In a reversal from his decision last year, McMillan last week penned approval of a divorce for same-sex couple Sabrina Witt and Erica Witt that includes designation of Erica Witt as the father of the couple’s daughter, conceived through artificial insemination.

Days later, Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill inspired by the Witts’ case – the first in the state in the wake of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that conferred marital rights to same-sex couples. The bill ordered courts to give “natural meaning” to words such as mother and father. (Note: Haslam, in signing the bill, basically said it doesn’t accomplish anything. Previous post HERE.)

Attorney General Herbert Slatery III already had opined that judges would – and should – ignore the new law in such family law proceedings as divorce, custody and child support. The Legislature ignored the opinion. … The “natural meaning” bill was drafted to ban the legal labeling of a woman as a husband, and 53 legislators used a conservative legal group to try to step into the Witts’ divorce case.

McMillan, though, was having none of that. He refused in an April order to allow such an intervention, saying the Legislature needs to stay out of the court’s and the Witts’ business.

“The court finds that the current request to intervene constitutes an attempt to bypass the separation of powers provided for by the Tennessee constitution,” McMillan wrote. “The parties and the child deserve to have their issues tried and a ruling made.”

…Sara Sedgwick, senior counsel for the health care division of the (state Attorney General’s) office, urged McMillan in a brief to view the words “wife” and “husband” in a “gender-neutral” fashion. To do otherwise, she wrote, would be to violate constitutional law, particularly in light of the same-sex marriage decision.

McMillan took her advice.

“… The court finds that that is the correct frame of reference that the court should use in looking at this issue based on the duty of this court to preserve the statute’s constitutionality if it can be read in a neutral fashion,” he said in a transcript from a March hearing.

Stripping away gender from the label of husband, McMillan said Erica Witt was a legal father with legal rights to see her daughter. She also has to pay child support.

“Erica Witt is a legal parent of the parties’ minor child,” McMillan wrote.

The 53 legislators who sought to intervene have filed a notice of an intent to appeal McMillan’s refusal to let them.

Note: A lawsuit has already been filed challenging the new law. Previous post HERE.

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