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Court Opens Door to New Paternity


Challenges
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2000; Page A01

Ruling, Dissent From


Maryland Court of Appeals
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Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that men who have legally acknowledged
fathering a child can challenge those paternity agreements, even several years later.
Judges who dissented from the court's opinion predicted that it could leave countless
children "fatherless and without support."

The hotly debated 4 to 3 decision by the state Court of Appeals marks


Maryland's entry into an area of law that is just now emerging across
the country as more people gain access to DNA analysis, which can
prove or disprove a child's parentage with almost 100 percent
accuracy.
The judges ruled that blood or genetic tests that can determine
paternity must be ordered if requested by the men.
The three dissenting judges and some child advocates criticized the
ruling, which they said neglected to consider the "best interests of a
child." They said they fear it will inspire thousands of men to seek new
tests in hopes of shirking long-standing child-support orders.
"What this opens up is a question of paternity in cases where it should
have been resolved a long time ago," said Teresa Kaiser, executive
director of the state Child Support Enforcement Administration. "Many
children who think they have a father may end up not having one."
But a majority of the court argued that fairness and truth are
paramount over "best interests" in any paternity proceedings,
whenever they take place.
"Simply stated, the fact of who the father of a child is cannot be
changed by what might be in the best interest of the child," Judge Dale
R. Cathell wrote for the majority.
The decision stems from three cases involving two men and the three
children--now in or entering their teens--the men once acknowledged
to have fathered.
A Talbot County man, identified only as Tyrone W., entered a paternity
agreement with his ex-girlfriend after she gave birth in 1989. Though
he did not request a blood test, he believed he had fathered her son,

T.R., and agreed to pay child support.


But years later, the woman began dating another old boyfriend, and
Tyrone testified that she implied to him that someone else might be
the father. In 1998, he sought to overturn the old paternity agreement,
but the local courts found that with no evidence of past fraud or error,
he had waited too long to request new genetic tests of T.R., who was
then 9.
The other cases involve an East Baltimore man, William Carl Langston,
who had acknowledged fathering children with two women--Jason,
born in 1984, and Angela, born in 1987.
According to court records, he learned that Angela was not his
daughter through blood tests taken when she was 9. Her maternal
grandfather had sought benefits for the girl from the Harford County
Department of Social Services, which ordered the new tests to
reestablish paternity.
But Baltimore City Circuit Court refused to reopen Langston's 1987
paternity agreement regarding Angela and also refused to require
genetic testing of Jason, as Langston requested at the same time.
The issue of whether men have the right to reopen paternity cases is
still evolving across the country. With increasingly affordable new DNA
tests only now entering the market, many high courts have not yet
addressed the question.
Legal experts said that although some state courts have embraced
DNA testing, others, including those in Kansas and Washington state,
have held that the "best interests" of a child should be weighed before
new tests are ordered.
The cases of Langston and Tyrone W. were the first test of a 1995
Maryland law that allowed state trial courts to modify paternity orders
whenever genetic analysis found that the presumed father was not the
biological father. Previously, Maryland law had considered paternity
declarations to be final and binding under almost all circumstances.
The state attorney general's office, which represented the three
women involved in the cases, argued that the 1995 law could not be
applied retroactively to paternity agreements.
In addition, it said, judges should have to consider whether blood tests
are in a child's "best interests" before authorizing them. Assistant

Attorney General C.J. Messerschmidt said the factors might include


how long a paternity order had been in effect, or what kind of
relationship the child had with the supposed father.
But in their ruling, the judges said the state legislature intended the
law to be retroactive. It was a response, they noted, to a muchpublicized case of a man required to honor a paternity order even after
he was found not to have fathered the child.
Cathell emphasized that yesterday's ruling does not allow men who
have been ruled out as the biological father to demand repayment of
any past child support.
In a fiery dissent, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell argued that the legislature
did not mean to grant men such broad powers to reopen cases. He
declared that children will be "losers" under the majority decision.
"It is not inconceivable, and, indeed, quite probable, that there will be
a number of requests for blood and genetic tests made by men who
agreed to paternity [but are now] behind in payments or perhaps
regretting the initial decision," he wrote.
Judges Alan M. Wilner and Lawrence F. Rodowsky also dissented.
Lawyers for the winning side argued that men have the right to find
out if they actually fathered a child. They dismissed speculation that
the ruling would prompt legions of men to demand new blood tests.
Even though they now have the right to challenge old orders, it doesn't
mean the men will win when the cases get to court, lawyers said.