New Mexico Supreme Court Establishes Important Parenting Protections for Non-Biological Mothers
(San Francisco, CA, June 1, 2012)—Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued a decision recognizing important new protections for non-biological mothers who are raising children with a same-sex partner. The Court held that a woman who raises a child with another woman and assumes parental and financial responsibility for the child can be a legal parent under New Mexico law, just as a male parent would be, regardless of whether she is a biological parent.
National Center for Lesbian Rights client Bani Chatterjee and her partner, Taya King, were in a committed, long-term relationship and decided to raise a child together through international adoption. Because they could not adopt jointly due to discrimination against same-sex couples, only Taya legally adopted their child from abroad. Although Bani did not adopt their daughter, Taya and Bani co-parented their daughter, and Bani supported the family financially. Bani and Taya eventually ended their relationship after they had lived together as a family for nine years. Taya moved to Colorado with their daughter and tried to prevent Bani from having any contact with their child.
Bani filed a petition in the New Mexico district court to establish parentage and seek custody. She argued that she was presumed to be a legal parent to the child under the New Mexico Uniform Parentage Act because she openly held out the child as her own and established a personal, financial or custodial relationship with the child. The district court dismissed Bani’s case. The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that New Mexico law only allows fathers, not mothers, to establish parentage based on these facts, but that Bani may be able to seek visitation as a non-legal parent.
The New Mexico Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and ruled that a woman who holds herself out as the child’s parent and has a parental relationship with the child can be a legal parent under New Mexico law, in the same way that a man would be. The Court also made it clear that even if a non-biological parent has not adopted the child she can be recognized as parent, and that once the non-biological parent is recognized as a parent, both parents are equal legal parents under the law and have an equal right to seek custody.
The Court noted that “our Legislature has recognized that there will be many situations in which someone is caring for a child but has not taken any steps to legalize that relationship.” The Court stated that the law recognizes those relationships “because parental rights are not automatically conferred when there is a biological relationship, but rather when an alleged parent has taken the responsibility of caring for a child.”
NCLR Family Protection Project Director Cathy Sakimura said: “This is a tremendously important decision for our client and for many other families and children in New Mexico who have created stable, loving parent-child relationships that are not based on biology. The New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed that the parentage statutes must be applied equally to protect children, regardless of their parents’ marital status, gender, or sexual orientation. We are grateful to the Court for issuing such a thoughtful, well-reasoned opinion that will no doubt serve as a powerful model for courts in other states.”
Bani Chatterjee said: “I’m beyond thrilled. It is so wonderful for my daughter and me to have our relationship recognized and respected. After so many years of tension and uncertainty, this will help us all heal and move forward.”
Caren I. Friedman, one of Bani’s attorneys, said: “I could not be more pleased for my client and for all of the families in New Mexico that will be touched by the Court’s wise and thoughtful decision. I am grateful that the Court has placed New Mexico among the jurisdictions that interpret the Uniform Parentage Act in a manner that affords broad protection and support for children and their parents. I also want to express my indebtedness to NCLR for its expertise and commitment to my client’s case.”
Bani Chatterjee was represented by NCLR and New Mexico attorneys Caren I. Friedman and N. Lynn Perls, and initially represented by Jerome Ginsburg. NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter argued the case in the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Amicus briefs in support of Bani Chatterjee were submitted by a number of family law professors represented by numerous New Mexico family law attorneys, and the National Association of Social Workers represented by the Southwest Women’s Law Center.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.
Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.