A Santa Fe judge says the former lesbian partner of a woman who adopted a Russian child 13 years ago has legal status as a natural parent — a ruling advocates described Thursday as a victory for the parental rights of same-sex partners and non-biological parents.
State District Judge Glenn Ellington granted the status to Bani Chatterjee on Wednesday by a summary judgment in a domestic case Chatterjee brought against Taya King in late 2008.
Chatterjee’s lawyer, Sarah Bennett of Santa Fe, praised Ellington’s decision as courageous, in that it applies the facts of the case as the New Mexico Supreme Court said they should have been applied in a precedent-setting ruling last June.
Chatterjee “never got her day in court,” Bennett said. “She’s been in the appellate process up until now, getting the law established, so [Ellington’s order] is huge for her.”
King’s lawyer, Matthew Torres of Albuquerque, didn’t return a message seeking comment, but wrote in longhand on Ellington’s order that he approved it “as to form only” — an indication he isn’t satisfied with the substance of the ruling.
Cathy Sakimura, family law director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, described Ellington’s decision as the “natural extension” of the high court’s ruling.
“It was a very important decision for same-sex parents, for non-biological parents and their children, recognizing that when someone has held themselves out as a parent and established that kind of relationship with their child, that they should be able to be recognized,” she said. “That is what the Supreme Court held last year, and this is the natural application, based on the extremely compelling facts of this case, that this is what happened for this child who for so many years had two parents.”
Chatterjee, who works in the administration office of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and King, a licensed therapist, were domestic partners for about 15 years, during which time King adopted a 15-month-old girl in Russia. Chatterjee never formally adopted the child, but the three lived together as a family, and Chatterjee provided some support for both King and the child, now 14.
When Chatterjee and King broke up, King moved to Colorado, took the child with her and tried to prevent Chatterjee from seeing her. So in 2009, Chatterjee sued King in state District Court, seeking visitation rights under New Mexico’s Uniform Parentage Act. But then-state District Judge Daniel Sanchez dismissed her claim, ruling she had no standing to claim natural parentage.
Chatterjee appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which upheld the district judge. But the state Supreme Court reversed both the district and appellate court judges, finding that Chatterjee has standing to bring an action to establish a parental relationship and that she has standing to seek joint custody as a natural parent, and remanded the case back to District Court.
Sanchez has retired, so the case was assigned to Ellington, who has held hearings and considered motions in the case since then.
Bennett said Ellington’s ruling applies the law as the state Supreme Court said it should be applied in New Mexico.
“The next step for Bani, now that she finally has been adjudicated to be a parent, is to determine what form of custody the parties have, how visitation will be shared,” Bennett said. “There’s been this interim order that allows her a modicum of visitation, but those kinds of questions still have to be restored in court. … But this is a big hurdle in the process. It’s an important adjudication that we are very glad Judge Ellington chose to do by summary judgement.”
Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.