Paternity upheld despite evidence to the contrary

October 12, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

Two Maryland men remain fathers in the eyes of the law -- though evidence later proved they were not -- because the men waited too long to challenge rulings in their paternity cases, the state's highest court has held.

At issue in the cases, the Court of Appeals said, were competing interests: the court system's need to provide a final settlement -- and thus end the legal disputes vs. "the ascertainment of truth." Here, the court opted to protect its procedures.

But, two dissenting judges said the high court's ruling "defies common sense."

"Under the majority's view, presumably if the Provincial Court of Maryland in the 1600s had issued a decree that the Earth was flat, the absence of 'fraud, mistake or irregularity,' as narrowly defined by this court, would make that Provincial Court decree sacrosanct," the dissenters said.

In one of the cases, from Talbot County, blood tests later proved the man could not have been the baby's father. And in the other, a Baltimore woman said later she had perjured herself when naming the father.

Yet, the Court of Special Appeals held that Maryland law gives lower courts 30 days to revise paternity judgments. In both cases, the court said, the men waived their rights to challenge the paternity findings.

In the case of Tandra S., Tyrone W. acknowledged paternity in 1990, then waited 2 1/2 years before asking for blood tests.

In the other case, John S. and Vandella H. testified in court in 1986 that he had fathered her child -- though they had last had sex about a year before the baby was born. He waited about six years before asking the court to vacate the paternity finding.

In both cases, circuit courts reversed the paternity judgments.

But the Court of Appeals said that under Maryland law, a paternity judgment may be changed after 30 days only if the court finds "fraud, mistake or irregularity." All three of those factors have narrow, specific legal definitions, the court said. And none of them was involved in these cases.

"[T]he overriding policy in Maryland emphasizes that once a case is decided, it shall remain decided with certain very narrow exceptions," the court said in its ruling Friday.

"The result in these cases may seem harsh," the court said. But in these cases, "the 'judicially determined father' was advised of all the safeguards the law provides to prevent incorrect decisions, and waived all those rights."

To argue that fairness requires new paternity hearings "overlooks the unfairness that would occur to the children if the paternity issue were allowed to be relitigated, thereby leaving the children [legally] fatherless and without support."

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