Sometimes Judges' Opinions Can Differ Legally

L was born in 2009. Her parents never married, and both were members of the military. Less than a year after she was born, Father left the military and moved into Mother’s home in the San Francisco Bay area and began attending graduate school. Mother remained in the military, but attended, and later graduated, from law school. During this time, Mother’s family (also living in the Bay area) helped care for L while L’s parents attended school.

After both parents graduated, Father found a job in the Bay area, and Mother was posted in Georgia. Father and Mother agreed to a temporary custody arrangement with Father, while they worked on a permanent agreement.

In February of 2013, Father filed a petition in Superior Court to obtain full custody of L. (At the time L would have been four years old.) After a three-day hearing Judge D granted joint custody to Father and Mother with L spending the school year with Father and the summer months with Mother. Judge D noted that Mother was able to spend other days during the year in the Bay area with L because of her military schedule and that she was able to stay with her family members to visit with L. Father did not have the same access to vacation time nor living quarters if L lived with Mother. Judge D noted that Mother’s family in the Bay area would also be able to help support L, and that Mother’s career in the military would cause her to move in many places while Father’s job location was static.

In 2015, Mother filed a request for modification of Judge D’s decision, because her parents had moved to Virginia and she had secured a position in Washington DC. Her posting was expected to be effective for five or six years. (To obtain a modification [change in a custody order], the requestor must show that there has been a significant change in circumstances to warrant a change in custody.) (In 2015, L would have been six years old and a full time elementary student.)

The modification was heard by Judge G. Judge G determined that there were no changes in circumstances that would warrant a change in custody, and denied Mother’s request.

Mother appealed.

The Appellate Court agreed with Judge G, stating that there was no rule that says one judge must always follow the reasoning of another judge. Although there were changes in circumstances, nothing in those changes “…claimed by Mother caused school year custody with her, rather than Father, to be a clearly preferable situation in furthering L.’s best interests. After the relocation, Mother continued to have family members available in the Bay Area to assist her visitation there, while Father had no comparable family or friends in Virginia.”