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A Times Editorial

A ruling in need of reconsideration

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002

The Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal has done a disservice to gay and lesbian parents who have children from a former marriage. In the divorce case of Robert Hall vs. Traci (Hall) Beauchamp, the court upheld a lower court's ruling that effectively prohibits Hall, a gay father of two daughters, from having his life partner remain in their home overnight on the nights he has his children.

A provision of the marriage settlement between Hall and Beauchamp forbids overnight guests, except for "close family members." Jackson County Circuit Court Judge William Wright refused to recognize that Hall's life partner, Michael Moody, fell within that exception, nor would he consider amending the provision.

Despite the numerous constitutional, state law, and fairness questions raised on appeal, the 1st DCA summarily affirmed Wright's ruling without setting out any rationale for its judgment. Due to the peculiar rules of Florida's state courts, the 1st DCA's unanimous decision cannot be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which means it is the end of the legal road for Hall, unless the 1st DCA reconsiders.

It should.

Hall and Beauchamp divorced in 1999. Their two girls live with their mother, and Hall has custody on Tuesday evenings, alternating weekends and for half of their summer vacation. The restrictive terms of their settlement have not precluded Beauchamp from remarrying and having the girls live in a house with her new husband. But being gay, Hall does not have the option of marrying. Instead, he and his partner did the closest available thing. They traveled to Vermont and entered into a legally sanctioned civil union.

Hall and Moody are in a committed relationship marked by emotional and financial interdependence. Moody considers Hall's children to be his stepdaughters, and they regard him as a stepfather. In fact, for a time, until he changed employers, the girls were on Moody's health insurance policy. Keeping Moody out of the house at night is not protecting these girls from any harm. If anything, it is confusing and disturbing for them to have Moody absent on the nights they sleep over.

Wright's ruling appears to have allowed personal bias to override legal judgment. Because Florida doesn't recognize civil unions, he said there hadn't been a change in circumstances justifying a revision of the marriage dissolution order.

But one doesn't have to change the order to recognize the reality of Hall and Moody's relationship: Moody is far closer to a family member than a "visitor" or "guest." It is fundamentally unfair to interpret the "no overnight visitors" clause of the divorce decree so as to preclude the possibility of Hall establishing a family of his own, just as his ex-wife has done. Clearly, those clauses are put into marriage settlement agreements as a way to protect children from the stress and emotion of having new adults in and out of their homes. But Hall and Moody are providing the opposite environment: a stable home with commited partners who will give Hall's daughters a sense of permanence. The disruption comes when Moody has to leave for the night.

This issue of a gay life partner's family status is too important to sweep under the rug as the 1st DCA has done. The court should to either reconsider its ruling or lay out its rationale and ask the Florida Supreme Court to hear the case.

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