Should She Stay or Should She Go? 

A bitter East Bay divorce has sparked a legal gender war, with huge ramifications for custodial parents who want to move their kids out of state.

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The First District Court of Appeal, which heard the case in 2002 after Suzy challenged Bruiniers' decision, disagreed. The panel overturned the order to grant Gary custody if Suzy moved, and scolded Bruiniers for concentrating on the effect the move would have on the father's relationship with his sons, rather than on what was really best for the children. Because Suzy was moving to Ohio for good-faith reasons, the appeals court ruled, Gary had to show how the move would actually harm the boys -- and he didn't. The kids had in fact told Stahl that they wanted to move to Ohio with their mother and stepfather -- a fact not lost on Gary. In a letter to Stahl, Gary recalled for the psychologist something Garrett had told him when the subject of moving came up between father and son: "'Dad, don't worry, because I have Todd. '"

Not unexpectedly, Gary petitioned the state Supreme Court to hear his case. It seemed unlikely to catch the justices' attention. To begin with, only 115 of the 9,000 petitions the Supremes receive each year ever get heard. The appeals court didn't seem to be plowing any new legal ground in its LaMusga ruling -- instead, the justices used the 1996 Burgess decision as their guide.

Yet in August of 2002 the Supreme Court agreed to hear LaMusga. Obviously, the justices had more to say on the subject of move-aways.

The news that the high court had taken the case quickly spread among family-law feminists, which meant it got the attention of Bonnie Sloane and her 82-year-old mother, Dorothy Jonas.

Twenty years ago, the mother-daughter team started the Coalition for Family Equity, an alliance of women's organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of California mothers in court. It was an effort to level the playing field for women battling in family court with their usually better-financed husbands, and it sprang up, in part, as a consequence of feminism's successes.

One by-product of the movement toward equal rights in the workplace was that fathers began pushing for equal rights in family courts where mothers had enjoyed an advantage in custody disputes for nearly a century. Eventually, women complained they were being screwed over in family court. Sloane, a full-time mom, and Jonas -- who was then a member of the state Commission on the Status of Women, as Sloane is now -- rallied to their defense to ensure the ex-husbands weren't cheating them out of things like child support.

The duo didn't accomplish its goals in courtrooms. Neither of them are practicing attorneys -- they're political animals, and aggressive ones at that. A 1993 Los Angeles Times article described them as having "gained a reputation as effective lobbyists who know how to move bills in a difficult area."

For a long time now, the two activists have kept a close eye on what they described in 1993 as the "move-away problem." Jonas says when she heard the Supreme Court was going to revisit the issue, she knew "we needed to get involved."

Mothers' advocates view move-aways as a civil rights issue. Attorney Kim Robinson believes that's so because divorced women, especially in high-priced regions such as the Bay Area, need to move to more affordable places after they divorce their husbands. "Forcing people to stay in the same geographic location, to their financial detriment, is not fair," she says. She also criticizes fathers' rights groups and the courts for holding a double standard: While they think that mom should have to stay near dad, no one ever stops the dad -- typically the noncustodial parent -- from moving away.

Eventually, Jonas and the Coalition for Family Equity persuaded Senate President Pro Tem John Burton to carry a bill they crafted with the group San Francisco Women Lawyers. Senate Bill 156 asserted that the Legislature views the Supreme Court's decision in Burgess as the law of the state -- a less-than- subtle message to the seven justices who had yet to rule on LaMusga. The bill sailed through both houses of the legislature with no formal opposition from fathers' rights groups, which, according to a legislative staffer, don't have nearly the same presence as they did five or ten years ago.

Defenders of divorced dads like Gary LaMusga may not have come to the rescue in the Legislature, but they are trying to make a difference in the courtroom. Ever since the Supremes agreed to hear Gary's appeal, social scientists, psychologists, and academics have come out of the woodwork to offer their theories on what, indeed, is in the "best interests of the children" -- the catchphrase at the heart of the rhetorical battle over move-aways. It's an academic debate that has produced studies with contradictory conclusions depending on the prejudices of the researchers, and has become a part of what some observers call the recent gender war in family law. In crude terms, the dads' side argues that two parents are better than one, while the moms' side preaches that mother knows best. Experts on both sides have submitted friend of the court briefs that serve as advisory opinions.


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