Court upholds visitation rights in same-sex custody battle

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(Host) A Vermont woman has won a legal victory in a case that tested whether a ban on same sex unions could affect a child custody dispute.

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court was hailed by gay rights activists. But a lawyer for the Vermont woman says she’s still fighting for the right to see her child.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The case involving Janet Jenkins, Lisa Miller and their child Isabella has wound through courts in Vermont and Virginia. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to weigh in.

The case was closely watched by both conservative and gay rights groups. It began after Jenkins and Miller dissolved their Vermont civil union, and Miller moved to Virginia with the couple’s daughter.

Miller tried to use the courts to block her ex-partner from seeing the child. But the high court decided not to hear her appeal.

Jennifer Levi, a lawyer in Boston who represents Janet Jenkins, says this is not the first time the case has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Levi) "Five times now the United States Supreme Court has declined review of any of the questions of the Vermont court’s authority to both hear and enforce matters of custody and visitation regarding Janet’s and Lisa’s child.”

(Dillon) Miller had argued that Virginia’s ban on same sex marriage – and the state’s refusal to recognize same sex unions from other states – should invalidate a Vermont family court ruling that granted Jenkins visitation rights.

The high court did not issue a written ruling saying why it refused to hear the appeal. But Levi says it’s an important decision nonetheless.

(Levi) The United States Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeals from either Vermont or Virginia affirms that there’s no gay exception in family law matters – that the ordinary rules of engagement that apply for non gay couples who have children apply to gay and lesbian couples who have children. And that has really broad import.

(Dillon) The case reached the Vermont Supreme Court as well. And in a ruling handed down in 2006, Justice John Dooley wrote that the case was a – quote – "straightforward interstate jurisdictional dispute over custody."

But the dispute apparently continues.

(Chalidze) "The victories are elusive. They’re significant, they’re meaningful, but they’re not enough."

(Dillon) Lisa Chalidze is a lawyer who represents Janet Jenkins in matters before Vermont family court.

She says Jenkins, who lives in Fair Haven, was denied visitation this spring. Chalidze says the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court gives her side more legal strength as it seeks to enforce visitation rights.

(Chalidze) "And there is a contempt motion currently pending for the disruption of visitation that has occurred since May. But we’re pleased now that we have an order that is enforceable in Virginia."

(Dillon) Attempts to reach Lisa Miller and her lawyers were not successful.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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