Judge Denies Woman Divorce Due to Pregnancy

In a case that pits a woman's bid to divorce an abusive husband against a law designed to protect the rights of children and the state, a judge has revoked a pregnant woman's divorce until after she gives birth.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine (search) ruled that because Shawnna Hughes' (search) ex-husband was not told she was pregnant at the time the divorce was granted, the divorce is illegal and must be revoked.

Hughes said her estranged husband is not the father.

State officials had worried that the divorce would leave no father financially responsible for the child.

"It is the policy of the state that you cannot dissolve a marriage when one of the parties is pregnant," Bastine, who is retiring as a judge on Friday, said during oral arguments on the case last month.

Lawyers for Hughes say Bastine is misinterpreting a state law intended to standardize paternity and preserve the rights of children and the state. They have appealed Bastine's Nov. 4 revocation of the divorce to the state Court of Appeals.

"No provision in state law authorizes a judge to decline to issue a divorce because the woman is pregnant," said Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union (search), which is supporting Hughes in the appeal. "Women should be able to choose for themselves when they want to end a marriage. That's especially important for women in abusive relationships."

"I'm devastated," said Hughes, 27, a medical assistant who is 7¼ months pregnant with a daughter. Ex-husband Carlos Hughes "is very, very violent," she said.

But Bastine said the issue is more complex. Attorneys for Shawnna Hughes did not immediately disclose the fact that she became 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.

Because the divorce paperwork did not disclose the pregnancy, in the eyes of the state the baby does not have a legally responsible father, the judge decided.

Since Shawnna Hughes is on public assistance, the state of Washington objected to the divorce because it might leave the state unable to pursue a father 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.

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. Carlos Hughes is presently in jail in Montana on federal drug charges, said Terri Sloyer, attorney for Shawnna Hughes.

Hughes already has a court order that prevents Carlos Hughes from contacting her, Bastine noted.

"It's not forcing a woman to live with a batterer," Bastine said.

The case began last March when Shawnna Hughes sought a divorce from Carlos Hughes, who was about to be released from jail after serving time for beating her.

Carlos Hughes didn't object, and a court commissioner granted the divorce in October.

Meanwhile, Shawnna Hughes was seeing another man, Chauncey Jacques, a childhood friend. Before her divorce from Carlos Hughes was final, Shawnna Hughes became pregnant, according to court records.

Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Mary Valentine learned of the pregnancy and called Sloyer, who disclosed the pregnancy to the court.

In court documents, Shawnna Hughes pleaded with Bastine for the divorce.

"If this court vacates my divorce and requires me to stay married to a man I have no desire to ever have a relationship with and who has brought significant physical harm to me over the years I would be emotionally devastated," she wrote. "If this court vacates my divorce and stays it until the birth of my child, it will prevent me from marrying the father of my child prior to her birth."

Court records say the father is Chauncey Jacques, who pleaded guilty to a gang-related drive-by shooting in Spokane in 1998 that blinded an elderly man. He is currently in the Spokane County Jail and due to be released soon, Sloyer said.

The Northwest Women's Law Center (search) in Seattle and the ACLU plan to file briefs with the state Court of Appeals on Hughes' behalf. They said other similar cases have also cropped up in Pierce and Snohomish counties.

"This is a woman in domestic violence asking to get out of the relationship," Sloyer said. "We're telling abusers that if you can get her pregnant you can keep her married to you."

Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women's Law Center, said the birth of Hughes' child will make the issue moot in her case, since paternity can then be quickly established. But Hughes' case can be the legal vehicle for deciding the issue for women in the future, Stone said.

Washington allows one-party divorce, but 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, Stone said.

"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.