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Over a lengthy and heated dissent by Justice Ming Chin, the California Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the best interests of a child could prevail over a father’s biological ties in determining parenthood. In doing so, the court made clear that family court judges may consider “every relevant consideration of policy and logic” in determining parentage, while at least one dissenter argued that the ruling threatens the rights of biological fathers. “We now find that biological paternity by a competing presumed father does not necessarily defeat a non-biological father’s presumption of paternity,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for a 4-3 court. Chin, in an extraordinary 72-page dissent, scolded the slim majority for adopting a “best interests” test for parentage disputes, a rule he argued the court rejected only 10 years ago. “The majority’s conclusion is inconsistent with California’s statutory scheme, which requires courts to determine paternity in accordance with biological fact even where a man enjoys a so-called conclusive presumption of paternity,” he wrote. “It is also inconsistent with compelling legislative history that clearly shows our Legislature’s intent to have parentage determined by biology where possible.” Monday’s ruling went a long way toward clarifying what factors are taken into account in determining presumed fatherhood, with Baxter arguing that fatherhood has more to do with providing stability, nurturing and permanence than planting the biological seed. At the center of the case is a Los Angeles County child identified in court papers only as Jesusa V. She was taken into protective custody in 2001 at age 1 after her biological father, identified only as Heriberto C., raped and beat her mother in her presence. Trial court Commissioner Marilyn Kading Martinez eventually ruled that the presumed father was Paul B., a San Diego-based Army sergeant who had lived with — and fathered five other children with — the girl’s mother. While still jailed on rape charges, Heriberto C. objected, based on his biological ties. He also argued that the trial court violated his due process rights by adjudicating fatherhood without requiring his presence in the courtroom. The Supreme Court agreed that the juvenile court erred by handling the dependency petition in Heriberto C.’s absence, but called it harmless error. Much of Baxter’s 45-page ruling was devoted to countering the arguments of Chin and separate dissenters Joyce Kennard and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar. His harshest comment came in a footnote, where he argued that under the dissenters’ view, a rapist could win parental rights. Baxter went after Chin by noting that in 2002, the court, in In re Nicholas H., 28 Cal.4th 56, relied on Family Code Section 7612 in basing a finding of presumed fatherhood on the best interests of a child. “Justice Chin fails to explain,” Baxter wrote, “why the same provision . . . allows us to consider the child’s best interest and public policy in determining whether the presumption is rebutted in Nicholas H., but not in this case.” Chin warned that the majority ruling could have serious implications for biological dads. “Given the prevalence in today’s world of fractured families and the relative ease of qualifying as a presumed �natural father’ — especially under the majority’s analysis in this case,” he wrote, “thousands of biological fathers in California may now be at risk � although they have a loving, healthy and well-developed relationship with their children.” Baxter was joined in an odd alliance comprised of Justice Janice Rogers Brown, a fellow conservative, and Chief Justice Ronald George and Justice Carlos Moreno. Tustin lawyer John Dodd, who represented the biological father, called the court’s reasoning flawed. “When the courts start picking and choosing who the parent of a child is based on what they believe is best interest,” he said, “we’re pretty far down the road toward the state reconfiguring families just on the whim of one solitary judge. That’s a very dangerous precedent.” The ruling is In re Jesusa V., 04 C.D.O.S. 1754.

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