A family court judge in Vermont has found a woman in contempt for going to Virginia and disobeying a court order involving the breakup of her civil union and the custody of a child. Judge William Cohen's decision continues a legal dispute that pits the courts of Vermont against those in Virginia, where competing decisions have been issued. In the latest, Cohen granted a request by Janet Miller-Jenkins that he hold her former partner, Lisa Miller-Jenkins, in contempt for failing to abide by a temporary visitation order he handed down earlier this year. "Lisa chose to bring her action initially in Vermont because of the rights and benefits Vermont's law provides her," the judge wrote in an eight-page decision. "But when she realized that there were obligations and burdens to go along with those rights and benefits and decided that under the specific order issued by the Vermont court the benefits were outweighed by the burdens, she changed her mind and decided to go elsewhere."
The case has drawn national media attention, focusing attention on the fate of children in relationships sanctioned in one state but not in others. The women were a couple living in Virginia when they decided four years ago to enter into a civil union in Vermont. They then went back to Virginia and decided that Lisa Miller-Jenkins would conceive a child through artificial insemination. Isabella was born in Virginia in April 2002. The two women later decided to move to Vermont and then split up. Last year, when the women dissolved their civil union, they agreed to allow a Vermont judge to rule on custody. However, Lisa Miller-Jenkins took the child and moved to Winchester, Va., suing for full custody in that state, where civil unions are not recognized. Janet Miller-Jenkins, who lives in Fair Haven, contested the action, saying a judge in Vermont had already given her temporary visitation rights with the
Late last month a Virginia judge ruled in Lisa Miller-Jenkins's favor and took jurisdiction in the case. Virginia circuit judge John Prosser recognized Lisa Miller-Jenkins as the girl's sole parent. The judge based his decision on that state's Affirmation of Marriage Act, a law that bars the state from recognizing same-sex civil unions. Prosser also said that Virginia's new law prevents him from recognizing the Vermont case or rulings issued from it. Despite the latest contempt finding in Vermont, Cohen decided against imposing any sanctions against Lisa Miller-Jenkins, at least for now. Janet Miller-Jenkins's lawyer, Theodore Parisi, said her attorneys in Virginia intend to appeal that court's ruling. "The ultimate issue here is whether or not the Virginia court has to give full faith and credit to a Vermont order which derives from the civil union statute," Parisi said.
Attorney Judy Barone, who represents Lisa Miller-Jenkins in the Vermont proceeding, said she is considering whether to seek the right to appeal Cohen's most recent order. "I think we have confusion between two states ordering two different things," Barone said. "Obviously, this will have to be decided by some higher court to reconcile the two courts."