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NH Supreme Court sides with father in baby name-change case

Last modified: 11/2/2012 11:26:02 AM
The state Supreme Court yesterday upheld a Berlin family court decision to change a baby’s last name to that of his teenage father, rejecting the mother’s argument that the standard used by state courts to settle child-naming disputes is too undefined and leads to sexist results.

Alexander Bailey Goudreau was renamed Alexander Goudreau Lemieux in September 2011, when he was 17 months old. The change, made by a Berlin judge, was requested by the family of Alexander’s father, Andrew Lemieux, who filed a petition in court that June.

Alexander’s mother, Veronica Goudreau, opposed the name change, arguing that Andrew – who was 15 when he fathered Alexander – hadn’t taken responsibility for the baby.

But the justices, who reviewed the trial record in the case, said Andrew and Veronica were both committed to their son at the time Andrew sought the name change – providing “an objective basis” for giving the child the names of both parents, according to their opinion.

In affirming the name change, the justices rejected arguments from Veronica and her lawyer, Joshua Gordon, that New Hampshire courts needed a different method to resolve naming disputes than the so-called “best interest” standard, which lets judges decide parental rights and responsibilities cases by considering a child’s best interests, not by evaluating specific factors.

“Our precedent establishes that a child’s best interests are served when a trial court has broad discretion to consider all factors bearing on the child’s welfare and is not compelled to treat any single factor” as determining the outcome, the justices said.

The justices also disagreed with Gordon’s argument that the best interest standard usually results in a child receiving his father’s surname, reflecting “sexist social conventions.”

While Gordon drew upon “scholarly commentary” in his argument, he “cites no decision from any jurisdiction reaching this conclusion,” the justices said. They noted that the standard used in New Jersey, which decides naming disputes by giving the child the name of the custodial parent, was adopted after that state’s Supreme Court said conflicting subjective factors were leading to inconsistent resolutions of child-naming cases.

In this case, “the record contains no evidence of such practices in New Hampshire,” the justices said.

That’s because New Hampshire is a small state, Gordon said. “The record in other states is lengthy,” he said yesterday, adding that the cost of pursuing appeals has likely prevented similar cases from coming to the attention of the state’s highest court. “I think most courts, in the last 20 to 30 years, have recognized there is a gender bias.”

To guard against that bias, Gordon proposed the court adopt the New Jersey standard or create a list of factors for judges to consider while deciding child-naming disputes, an approach he said several courts have taken.

In affirming the best interest standard without outlining any factors, “my concern is the court just left every family court judge with absolutely unfettered discretion to do whatever that judge thinks best,” Gordon said. “That’s really no standard.”

But given the complicated nature of child-naming disputes, it doesn’t make sense to bind decisions to specific standards, said Jack Crisp, the attorney for Andrew Lemieux.

“I think if you have experience with this field . . . to have a standard like, who gets primary custody (gets to name the child), leaves out a lot of considerations and issues,” Crisp said yesterday. He said gender bias played no role in the case – both parents’ names were given to the child, he noted – and disagreed with Gordon’s assertion that sexism in naming cases has been widely acknowledged in other states.

Gordon pointed to an Arkansas Law Review article that studied name-change cases in that state over a 50-year period, and “every one of them was much like this case, (upholding) family courts giving the father’s last name,” Gordon said. He said in his brief that the Montana Supreme Court reviewed its name-change cases and found that “in each case the father prevailed regardless of whether he was the challenger or defender of the given surname.”

Crisp argued the situation isn’t a common one. “I’m willing to bet you in 50 years of legislation, there aren’t even a dozen cases where the issue has come up,” Crisp said.

Judges need discretion to settle parental-rights cases, Crisp said, because “a lot of name calling and accusations go on.” He said Andrew was falsely accused of not caring about his son.

While Crisp said Andrew was “on the fence” when he learned his then-girlfriend was pregnant – Veronica, 16 at the time, told the Berlin court Andrew wanted her to put the baby up for adoption – he was involved within days of the child’s birth, going to court to get visitation rights, Crisp said.

The marital master who recommended changing the baby’s name “understood that there was real reluctance on the part of Mom and her family to (let Andrew) have a role in Alexander’s life,” Crisp said. “That’s why this whole name issue was important.”

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @maddiehanna.)


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