SPOKANE, Wash. – When Shawnna Hughes (search) discovered she was pregnant, her husband was in jail for beating her. She sought a divorce before his release, and he did not object — but a judge did.
Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine (search) revoked Hughes' divorce until after she gives birth because her husband was not told she was going to have a child and paternity had not been established.
"It is the policy of the state that you cannot dissolve a marriage when one of the parties is pregnant," he said during oral arguments on the case last month.
Hughes, a 27-year-old medical assistant, is 7-months pregnant and says her estranged husband, Carlos Hughes (search), is not the father. She has appealed the decision.
"I'm devastated," she said, calling her husband "very, very violent."
Carlos Hughes is in jail in Montana awaiting trial on federal drug charges and Bastine noted that Shawnna Hughes has a restraining order that prevents her husband from contacting her, even if they remain married. But women's advocates worry the ruling sets an unsettling precedent.
"This is a woman in domestic violence asking to get out of the relationship," said Hughes' attorney, Terri Sloyer. "We're telling abusers that if you can get her pregnant you can keep her married to you."
Lawyers supporting Hughes' appeal said Bastine is misinterpreting a state law intended to standardize paternity and protect the rights of children and the state.
"No provision in state law authorizes a judge to decline to issue a divorce because the woman is pregnant," said the American Civil Liberties Union's Doug Honig. "Women should be able to choose for themselves when they want to end a marriage. That's especially important for women in abusive relationships."
But Bastine, who retired on Friday, said the issue is more complex. Attorneys for Shawnna Hughes did not immediately disclose that she was pregnant in the midst of the divorce proceedings. Under state law, an ex-husband is presumed to be the father of any child born up to 300 days after a divorce and can be liable for child support, Bastine said.
"You needed to serve him and give him notice that his rights as a father or as a non-father were being determined in that matter. It wasn't done," the judge said.
Further muddying the waters is Shawnna Hughes' reliance on public assistance. The state of Washington objected to the divorce because it might leave the state unable to identify a father and pursue him for repayment of welfare money used to support the child.
Bastine agreed to revoke the divorce until paternity is scientifically established after the child's birth, expected in mid-March.
"It's not forcing a woman to live with a batterer," he said.
Hughes, a vivacious mother of two young sons by Carlos Hughes, said they married in 1998 and he began to beat her after she became pregnant with their older son.
She says she became romantically involved with a childhood friend, Chauncey Jacques, and that he is the father. Jacques is now in the Spokane County Jail awaiting trial on a federal drug charge.
In court documents, Hughes pleaded with Bastine for the divorce, saying that she wanted to marry the father of her child, and that Carlos Hughes "has brought significant physical harm to me over the years."
The Northwest Women's Law Center in Seattle and the ACLU plan to file briefs with the state Court of Appeals on Hughes' behalf. They said similar cases have cropped up in Washington before.
Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center, said Bastine's decision would create a separate class of women who cannot divorce while pregnant, a time when battered women often face even more attacks from their partners.
"So, if you have a pregnant woman who wants to get away from her batterer, do you want to make it harder for her?" Stone said.