JNR and JFR v. Honorable Joseph O’Reilly, Judge, Jefferson Family Court

JNR and JFR v. Honorable Joseph O’Reilly, Judge, Jefferson Family Court
and JRG, Real Party in Interest
, ___ S.W.3d ___ (Ky. 2008)

JGR (James) filed a custody and support petition, alleging DNA confirmed him to be the biological father of a child who lived with his mother, JNR (Julia), who was married to JFR (Jonathan). After the family court refused to dismiss the petition, Julia and Jonathan were denied a writ of prohibition in the Court of Appeals and appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 in favor of Julia and Jonathan in five separate opinions.

The opinion of the Court by Justice Minton in which Chief Justice Lambert concurred held that the family court was without subject matter jurisdiction to determine paternity claims brought by a biological father where there is no evidence or allegation that the marital relationship ceased ten months before the child’s birth. Because a showing of irreparable injury and lack of adequate remedy by appeal is not required for issuance of a writ of prohibition when the trial court is acting outside its jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals erred in denying the writ of prohibition. Although the parties debated the due process and equal protection rights of the unmarried biological father, the constitutional claim was not perfected by serving a challenge on Kentucky’s Attorney General.

Justices Cunningham and Scott concurred in the result only, and each wrote separate opinions in which the other joined. Justice Scott opined that only the parties to a marriage can challenge the presumption of legitimacy under KRS 406.011 and there is no constitutional right of a “stranger to the marriage” to assert paternity under such circumstances. Justice Cunningham wrote that this case is squarely about the legal status of marriage and about a married couple’s right to be left alone from the allegations of an interloper asserting the claim of fatherhood.

Justice Abramson dissented by an opinion in which Justice Schroder joined and wrote that the Supreme Court erred grievously in its holding. She distinguishes “marital relations,” the sexual aspects of marriage with the “marital relationship,” the broader aspect of emotional, physical, social, and moral dimensions characterized by a monogamous bond. She believed the “marital relationship between the husband and wife” referenced in KRS 406.011 can certainly be said to “cease” when the wife is having sexual intercourse with another man. While the marriage may still exist as a matter of law and sex may still occur between the spouses on occasion, the monogamous “marital relationship” ceases when the third party enters the picture. She focuses on the words actually used by the legislature as the operative concern and notes that it also makes common sense. A child born to a married woman and a lover who is not her husband is indeed born out of wedlock. The evidence which would show a cessation of the marital relations would need to be assessed on a case by case basis but would encompass the situation, as here, where the putative father has had a visitation with the child through the mother’s cooperation and has secured DNA testing establishing biological fatherhood.

Justice Abramson challenges the majority belief that its holding protects the integrity of the family. If a mother alone can harbor the secret of paternity so long as it serves her purposes, there is no societal disincentive to conceiving a child outside the bounds of marriage. Secondly, she notes that there are tens of thousands of blended families in Kentucky who cope with shared parenting. The only variable in this case is that the only child who has a parent outside the home is the younger as opposed to the older child or children. Finally, she notes the medical and psychological consequences to a child who should have a right to know his parentage.

Justice Noble dissented by separate opinion writing that the majority confused a statutory element of proof as a requirement for standing. One does not have to prove an element in order to have the right to plead it. She believes the majority jumped over the hurdles of proper pleading and procedure to the evidentiary merits of the case, noting that even on writ procedures from the Court of Appeals, the Kentucky Supreme Court is not the fact finder. She wrote that this case is one example of evolving legal questions that arise when a new type of court is instituted. Under KRS 406.021, a putative father has standing. Once a party has standing, then certain elements of proof must be established to rebut the presumption that a child born during the marriage is the child of the husband. One does not have to prove an element of a claim to have the right to plead it. She opined that James clearly has a due process right to at least be heard, because he does have standing.