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State high court makes history in custody case

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A divided Alabama Supreme Court decided a child custody dispute Friday with a history-making decision citing legal precedent, the Bible, and parents' relationship with God.

A majority of the justices agreed the child should be raised by the maternal grandparents, but to reach that conclusion, the nine justices issued seven opinions in the case. That allowed each justice to offer an explanation of why the case ended like it did.

Justice Tom Parker, who wrote a dissenting opinion, noted that in the more than 7,100 cases in the Supreme Court's database, "this is the first case in which Justices of the Court have issued seven separate opinions."

Their opinions totaled 100 pages, which is unusually long for the state's highest court. The other decisions released by the Supreme Court on Friday averaged 30 pages.

The case involved a child born out of wedlock in April 1999 to a couple that met while attending Narcotics Anonymous. No names were used in the case to protect the child's identity, but the Supreme Court noted that it was from Madison County.

The child lived primarily with its maternal grandparents although the mother and father, who never lived together, shared custody until the mother overdosed on heroin in October 2002. Then the father and maternal grandparents shared legal custody.

In February 2003, while the child was living with the maternal grandparents, the father sought full custody. Instead, a judge gave full custody to the maternal grandparents and declared the father an unfit parent. The judge cited many factors, including the father having so little contact with the child that he didn't know the child's clothes size.

Five justices concurred with the lower court's decision, with Justice Lyn Stuart noting that the father "had never spent 24 hours alone with his son."

Citing Psalm 127:3-5, she wrote that children are a gift from God, but they come with responsibilities.

"Rights must be claimed and responsibilities assumed or they may be forfeited," she wrote.

In a lone dissent, Parker quoted from Romans 13:1-2, which says "there is no authority except from God." Parker wrote that God, not the state, has given parents the rights and responsibilities to raise their children.

He said "courts should interfere as little as possible with parental decision-making, instead deferring to parental authority whenever it has not been fundamentally compromised by substantial neglect, wrongdoing or criminal act."

Three justices — Harold See, Champ Lyons and Bernard Harwood — agreed with the maternal grandparents having custody, but disagreed with the lower court ruling finding the father unfit. See said the father should not have been declared unfit because the maternal grandparents never raised that issue in court.

Lyons wrote the lower court didn't give sufficient emphasis to recent changes in the father's life, including getting a steady job and staying off drugs.

"If this parent is unfit on the grounds here cited, in disregard of the undisputed evidence of rehabilitation from his past mistake of drug abuse, then the authority of the courts to declare parents unfit has been dramatically expanded," Lyons wrote.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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