NEW YORK — When Olympic skier Bode Miller handed his infant son to the baby’s mother in a courtroom this week, she was handed a victory – for now – in a case that became a rallying point for women’s-rights advocates.
Former Marine and firefighter Sara McKenna was looking to enhance her career opportunities and her unborn son’s future, by her account, when she moved last winter from Miller’s home state of California to New York to go to Columbia University.
But a New York judge this May called her move “irresponsible” and “reprehensible,” deeming that McKenna’s move was less about bettering herself than about bettering her position in the legal dispute.
That set off alarms among women’s groups and civil libertarians, who said the ruling wiped away pregnant women’s rights to make decisions as basic as where to live.
That ruling was reversed this month, and the 9-month-old boy is with McKenna at least until a Dec. 9 hearing.
McKenna “is absolutely thrilled and relieved” by the developments, her lawyers say, and her advocates are delighted by the broader legal message.
The reversal “unequivocally affirms a pregnant woman’s right to travel, relocate, and benefit from equal protection while making life choices without interference from presumptive fathers or the government,” attorney Naved Amed said. His firm, Amed Marzano & Sediva PLLC, is representing McKenna for free.
Miller’s lawyers say he never wanted to prevent McKenna from moving and is just pursuing involvement in his child’s life.
“She had the right to make any life choice she makes, but her life choice impacted her child because he’s now 3,000 miles away from his father,” said one of his lawyers, Jill Zuccardy.
The case has become a commentators’ conversation piece. To Slate magazine editor Emily Bazelon, it’s a sign – of fathers’ rights taken “way too far, to the point of dangerousness.” To Barbara Walters on ABC’s “The View,” it shows “that fathers are interested.” Legal experts, meanwhile, say the case highlights the complexities of custody when parents move far from each other.
“You could say that as much as it is about women’s rights and their autonomy … at the same time, there’s a countervailing interest of the father’s rights and the father’s access to the child,” said Kevin Noble Maillard, a Syracuse University law professor who has written a book about nontraditional families.
McKenna, 28, had finished military service and was a civilian firefighter at the Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton, between Los Angeles and San Diego, Calif., when she and the alpine skiing gold medalist had a brief relationship in 2012, according to court papers and interviews she has given. She and Miller both declined, through their lawyers, to be interviewed this week.
McKenna has said Miller, 36, initially indicated he didn’t want a role in their child’s life. During McKenna’s pregnancy, he married professional volleyball player Morgan Beck after a quick courtship, and he has a 5-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. But the skier filed papers claiming paternity in the San Diego County Superior Court’s Family Court section in November 2012.
By then, McKenna had decided her risky job wasn’t conducive to pregnancy or parenting, and she was aiming to finish her college education at Columbia. The school and New York state offered appealing financial and other support for veterans, according to court papers filed on McKenna’s behalf. She started classes in January and gave birth in New York in February.
She named the boy after the skier, whose given names are Samuel Bode, and she calls the child Sam. His father calls him Nate, after his dead brother.
THE LEGAL DECISIONS
McKenna filed for custody in New York. But Manhattan Family Court Referee Fiordaliza Rodriguez ruled that the case belonged in California. She suggested McKenna had chosen New York because child-support payments generally last until a child is 21 here, compared to 18 in California.
“Her appropriation of the child while in utero was irresponsible, reprehensible,” and her “wrongful conduct must not be rewarded,” Rodriguez wrote in May.
The California court then awarded temporary custody of the boy late this summer to Miller, who publicly relished his role as dad. The skier, who is currently training for next year’s Winter Olympics in Russia, brought the boy to a competition in Austria in October.
The mother’s lawyers felt the custody ruling against her was fueled partly by the damning New York decision, and women’s advocates shuddered at its implications.
“You have a case in which one of the most basic constitutional rights is treated as akin to kidnapping,” said Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, one of a dozen women’s and civil rights groups that filed legal papers supporting McKenna. They said the decision misapplied federal and state child-custody laws to an unborn baby and violated an expectant mother’s privacy rights, freedom to travel and other liberties.
A state appellate court agreed, declaring that “putative fathers have neither the right nor the ability to restrict a pregnant woman from her constitutionally-protected liberty.”
With that, the case resumed in the Manhattan court, where another judge returned the baby Monday to his mother, for the moment.
“The best present I could ask for was next to me when I woke up,” she tweeted Tuesday, her birthday.