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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Outcry over ruling lacks justification

The Spokesman-Review

“Court keeps wife tied to abuser,” says a headline in the Chicago Tribune. “Another Bozo on the bench,” says a TV commentator in Seattle. So who is this “Bozo” with “the judicial sense of a Clydesdale?” He’s Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine of Spokane, but he’s not keeping a wife lashed to her abusive husband nor has he been “rapped over the head with his own gavel,” as a Seattle pundit told his television viewers in an irresponsible commentary last week.

If one were actually to read the court records of this divorce case, which has been the subject of angry commentary on talk radio, cable TV and Web logs nationwide, you’d find that it pivots on mundane but important procedural points: all parties to a legal action must be served with notice and the facts of a case must be determined at a hearing. But procedure doesn’t make for juicy media-generated controversies. Better to bury that and get right to the outrage — real or imagined.

The legal saga began last April when Spokane’s Shawnna J. Hughes started a divorce proceeding against her husband, Carlos Hughes, who is serving a jail sentence for abusing her. The husband did not respond to divorce papers during the state’s 90-day waiting period. Shawnna Hughes became pregnant in June and says her boyfriend is the father of the child, which is due for delivery in March.

Mary Valentine of the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office was assigned to represent the state in the case, which was necessary because Shawnna Hughes receives state aid for her two children. In August, Hughes’ attorney, Terri Sloyer, sent legal papers to Valentine that indicated that “the wife is not pregnant.” Valentine had heard otherwise and faxed a query to Sloyer, and, according to court records, Sloyer did not respond.

Eventually, a pro-tem commissioner of the court granted the divorce, and Valentine, forgetting about the pregnancy, signed a necessary child support document. When she remembered the pregnancy, she informed the court.

That’s when Judge Bastine stepped in and said that the divorce would have to be rescinded because the facts surrounding the pregnancy had not been settled in court and Carlos Hughes had not been notified of the changing circumstances. The presumption in state law is that Carlos Hughes would be considered the father.

Critics of the judge have said that paternity in this case isn’t in dispute, so what’s the objection? They’ve also pointed to a possible dangerous precedent. Is the judge saying pregnant women in Washington state cannot obtain divorces?

First, what if paternity were disputed? Granting divorces without notifying husbands about pregnancies raises serious issues for all parties, including children. That’s why the facts need to be hashed out in court and why all parties need to be notified. The concern about the rights of pregnant women to get divorced will be illuminated as the case makes it way through the appeals process, and in the end the state will have clarity on how to handle divorce and paternity matters in such instances.

Judge Bastine is not further exposing Shawnna Hughes to her abusive husband. And he’s not imposing his morals while disregarding the law. He is a respected family law judge with a history of progressive public service.

This case carries some interesting legal questions, but it should never have been shoved into the center ring of a media circus.

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