Over the course of the past generation, our society has begun to recognize that sexual orientation has nothing to do with a person’s merit as a worker, a parent, or a human being, in general. It is an orientation rather than an aberration, yet our courts do not have the power to create cases or to promulgate laws based on their perception of need for change. Law is developed from the cases or controversies involving real people with existing legal issues.
So it is that as recently as 1985 the Superior Court ruled that a parent’s homosexual relationship reflected a “moral deficiency” that a Court must consider as an adverse factor in a custody case. That case, Constant A. v. Paul C.A., (496 A.2d 1 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1985) stood unchallenged for twenty-five years until a recent decision by the Superior Court. The facts of the case are as follows:
In 2006 a mother informed her husband that she was involved in a same sex relationship with another woman. The mother filed for divorce and shared custody in Dauphin County. Her husband replied by filing for primary custody of the child. A judge heard the case and ordered a shared custody arrangement for 18 months after which the child would live primarily in the custody of the father. The mother waited out the 18 month transition period and then filed for modification asking for preservation of the status quo. The mother also presented expert testimony that the shared physical arrangement was working. When the trial court rejected the modification request and relied upon the 1985 Constant A. v. Paul C.A. decision considering a same sex relationship as a “negative”, the Mother appealed.
In deciding this case, known as M.A.T. v. G.S.T, the Superior Court heard this case en banc. Ordinarily appeals are heard by panels of three appellate judges. Only in compelling cases (as decided by the Superior Court) are matters heard by panels of nine judges. The premise is that the Court wants the legal community and the public at large to understand that it is intent upon establishing lasting precedent.
The trial court’s opinion in M.A.T. v. G.S.T., it should be noted, found both parents to be fit and interested. It also noted, however, that the Mother did not overcome the principle that a same sex relationship must be harmful to the best interests of the child.
The Superior Court ruled that this doctrine no longer squared with Supreme Court rulings that each custody cases must be decided upon its facts and that each parent has the same burden of showing what is in a child’s best interest. Language that dismissed same sex relationships as “illicit” was dismissed as antiquated. The Court also recited language from its own 1982 decision in Custody of Temos where the Court noted that prejudice against interracial relationships had no place in a custody determination. There as here, the decision in a custody case must turn upon parenting quality in contrast to public perception of whether a particular environment was normal or accepted.
The decision in MAT v. GST was published on January 21. Any appeal to the Supreme Court must be filed within thirty days.