LANSING – The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a lesbian parent has no legal standing to sue her former partner for visitation or custody rights related to a child born to the couple while the upper peninsula couple was legally married in Canada.
The court ruled in Stankevich v. Milliron, that Jennifer Stankevich did not have any legal claims to a child conceived by Leanne Milliron after the two were married in Canada in 2007. The couple split in March of 2009. The two initially agreed upon visitation rights, but when they could not agree on scheduling, Stankevich filed for visitation in Dickinson County Circuit Court.
Stankevich claimed in her complaint with the court that she fully participated in the “care and rearing” of the child. That’s a legal standard for custody and visitation claims in Michigan.
Milliron filed for summary judgment dismissing the claim. Her attorneys argued that her former partner did not have standing. The circuit court concurred with Milliron, and dismissed the case. Stankevich appealed, but the higher court also found that she had no standing.
In the Appeals court ruling, judges ruled that Stankevich was not a parent because she was not related by blood. The court relied on a 1987 decision – called the Van decision – in which the equitable parent doctrine was found to apply only to married couples. The appeals court then reasoned because Michigan law and the state constitution prohibit marriage for same-sex couples that the recent Supreme Court ruling in Windsor did not apply.
“The Court affirmed that “[t]he definition of marriage is the foundation of the State’s broader authority to regulate the subject of domestic relations with respect to the protection of offspring, property interests, and the enforcement of marital responsibilities,” the judges of the Michigan court wrote of the June Supreme Court ruling. “Consistent with Windsor, the Michigan Legislature has delineated the scope of marriage within this state. MCL 551.1 defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and invalidates marriages between same-sex individuals.”
The ruling drew condemnation from advocates and lawmakers.
“I think the court missed,” said Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), who has introduced legislation to make second parent adoption legal. “I think [passage of the bill] is more urgent and more necessary.”
Irwin said the ruling flew in the face of legal concepts such as determining what is in the best interest of the children, and is “anathema to American values.”
“[The ruling is] Extremely disappointing but yet another example of how the State of Michigan harms LGBT families by its failure to recognize same-sex relationships and parent-child relationships,” says Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project. “What is so faulty about the Court’s damaging opinion in Van is that the majority elevates marital status above everything else, including the best interests of the child, disregarding any harm that might come to a child who never gets to see his/her other parent again. This is the legal precedent in Michigan and it needs to be changed either legislatively or the Michigan Supreme Court needs to overturn this decision. The Court of Appeals here believed that it had no choice but to follow the Van decision. I would say that both the Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court have let kids down here.”
Emily Dievendorf, managing director of Equality Michigan, also slammed the ruling.
“The relegation of LGBT citizens to second-class status by Michigan’s courts is disappointing, but not surprising. This decision is yet one more clear example of the incredible power of the marriage document to lend credibility, under law, to our relationships,” she said in an email statement to BTL. “It shouldn’t be so. Two loving supportive parents willing to provide for a child are the structure a child needs to thrive regardless of a license or of the gender of either parent, but as long as the law continues to define guardianship and partnership through civil marriage LGBT families must be granted equal access to marriage or they are clearly being treated as unequal under the law. Denying children the right to have both parents legally empowered to protect them only harms families and makes our children unnecessarily vulnerable.”
Read the ruling online: http://publicdocs.courts.mi.gov:81/OPINIONS/FINAL/COA/20131017_C310710_23_310710.OPN.PDF