A Virginia judge on Tuesday claimed jurisdiction to decide a child custody case between two women who had entered into a civil union in Vermont, a move that could set a legal precedent for same-sex couples whose relationships are recognized in some states and not others.
Lisa Miller-Jenkins, 35, who dissolved her civil union with Janet Miller-Jenkins, 39, in Vermont last year, has sued in Virginia's Frederick County circuit court to establish sole parental rights over the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Isabella. Lisa Miller-Jenkins gave birth to Isabella in Virginia in April 2002 and has
lived in the state since last year.
Janet Miller-Jenkins contested the action, saying a judge in Vermont already gave her temporary visitation rights with the child. Her attorney, Joseph Price, argued that because a custody proceeding is already under way in another state, both state and federal law prohibit Frederick County judge John R. Prosser from ruling in the case.
But Phil Griffin, Lisa Miller-Jenkins's attorney, said that because Virginia does not recognize Vermont civil unions, Prosser should not be held to the rulings of judges under the civil union law. "This is first time a judge has been asked to recognize a Vermont civil union as a valid marriage contract. And he declined to do so," Griffin said.
Prosser set another hearing for September 9 to make the order final. Price said he will appeal.
Prosser's decision was hailed as a victory by pro-family groups supporting Lisa Miller-Jenkins.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and gay rights advocates said the ruling could set a dangerous precedent. "The reason child jurisdiction statutes were enacted was to prevent exactly
this scenario--parents fleeing with children from one jurisdiction to another because they don't like the custody rulings of a state," Rebecca Glenberg, a lawyer with the ACLU, said in a statement.