David Reese, an Orange contractor locked in a bitter divorce battle, was floored. A judge had ordered him to pay child support for two children who were not his.
The kids, a 13-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl, were born to Reese’s wife, Rebecca, during their 17-year marriage. Although he raised them as his own, Reese later learned that they had been sired by his wife’s lover.
Blood tests ordered by the divorce judge proved that Reese was not the biological father. But it didn’t matter, because Reese was the only dad the children knew, and under state law, he was their legal father.
In a ruling that could reshape California law, an appeals court in Riverside has held that Reese was wrongly ordered to pay child support, and that his divorce judge should have been guided by the lab results.
The case turned on those blood tests, the appeals court justices said, because the law states that whenever a court takes an initiative and orders blood tests, it is obliged to follow the results.
The court published its decision, which means it can be cited in similar cases across the state. But the panel of judges in their opinion also took the unusual step of calling upon the state Legislature to revise current laws, so judges can exercise discretion when determining paternity, regardless of blood test results.
“As it stands, the statutes are a trap for the trial court that routinely orders blood tests without realizing the significance of [that action],” the court stated.
Reese and his attorney, John L. Dodd of Tustin, applauded the appeals court’s decision, saying justice was served.
But some experts say the opinion threatens to upset a 125-year-old legal precedent–and social policy–in California, which holds that the husband of a married woman is legally presumed to be the father of her children.
Glen H. Schwartz, an Encino attorney who has successfully argued many paternity cases, has asked the California Supreme Court to strike down the court’s ruling.
“If this case is allowed to become legal precedent, it will destroy the fabric of California’s paternity law,” Schwartz said in a letter to the court.
Scott A. Altman, a professor at USC Law Center, said the case of David Reese is but one of a growing number of instances where courts are being asked to redefine fatherhood.
Until now, state courts have consistently held that the father is the man who provides love and care, not necessarily the one who contributes the sperm.
Because the Reese opinion deviates from previous decisions, it “is clearly a case that would [be] appealing to the California Supreme Court,” Altman said.
In an interview last week, the 43-year-old Reese said he was only seeking justice, not trying to make new law, when he embarked on what became a four-year legal fight to escape fatherhood.
“No court should be able to force anyone to be a parent,” Reese said. “If God didn’t make me the parent, why should the court . . . make me the legal father? Does the court have more power than God? I don’t think so.”
Reese and his former wife, Rebecca, an activity director at a convalescent home in Hemet, once considered themselves exemplary parents. They sent their children to private schools, enrolled them in dance lessons and took them on family vacations.
The couple, who became sweethearts at Orange High School, were married in 1975. He was 21. She was 19.
Nine years later, Rebecca gave birth to a boy, who developed a passion for baseball.
On June 5, 1988, Rebecca had a second child, a girl. She had cute dimples and light sandy hair. She loves kittens.
The children’s birth certificates list Reese as their father.
The Reeses separated in 1992, and several months later the wife filed for divorce in Riverside Superior Court. Pending the outcome of their divorce case, Reese was ordered to pay his wife $982 a month for child support.
According to Reese, “the bomb dropped” a year later–and long before the divorce case went to trial–when Rebecca told him during an angry telephone conversation that his children weren’t biologically his. At the time, she did not name the real biological father.
“My reaction was plain disbelief,” Reese said. “There’s no greater jolt than to hear that you’ve been duped into raising children thinking they were yours.”
Reese raised the paternity issue with Riverside County Superior Court Judge Janice McIntyre, who was handling pretrial motions, and the judge ordered blood tests which revealed that neither child could have been fathered by Reese.
It was then that Reese decided it “would be better for all concerned” to terminate his parental rights and responsibilities. He still loved the children, he said, but “every time I’d see their faces, I was going to realize they were not my children.”
Reese asked Judge Richard G. Van Frank, to whom the divorce suit was later referred for trial, to free him from paying child support.
During the trial, Rebecca revealed that the biological father of both children was a La Habra grocery store clerk. She claimed that both conceptions were the result of an agreement between herself, her husband and the store clerk, because Reese could not father children.
In his testimony, Reese acknowledged that his sperm count was low, but said he had always believed it was enough to sire a child. Possibly two. He denied entering into any agreement allowing someone else to impregnate his wife.
The grocery clerk testified that he had never discussed the matter with Reese, and thought he was doing the couple a favor by impregnating Rebecca.
The judge said he didn’t believe Rebecca’s testimony about an agreement among the three adults, and noted that the lab results disproved Reese’s paternity.
But Van Frank nonetheless ruled that Reese was still the legal father and could not avoid his obligations to pay child support. The judge said he was bound by state law, which presumes that a husband is the father of any children born during his marriage, unless he is conclusively shown to be sterile or impotent.
This presumption has its roots in Roman law, and legal scholars say it has been accepted in California since 1872.
Altman, the USC law professor, said state courts and the Legislature embraced the notion because it promoted important social policies. It establishes continuity in a child’s life, preserves the family unit and seeks to establish sources of financial support for the child.
After he was held liable for child support, Reese immediately appealed. He also sued his ex-wife and the grocery clerk, demanding more than $200,000 he estimated he had spent on raising another man’s children from birth, freedom from future child-support payments and $2 million for emotional distress.
In June 1996, the appellate court initially rejected Reese’s appeal. The children’s right to a stable familial relationship was the overriding concern, the opinion stated.
Reese’s lawyer, Dodd, asked the court to reconsider its decision. Such requests are usually denied. But Dodd said he felt certain about his interpretation of the law, that “once the court requests blood testing, that controls the outcome of the case.”
Six weeks ago, the appellate court changed course, agreeing with Dodd that the law stated that a father could successfully shed paternity if court-ordered blood testing showed the children were not his.
“Unless and until the Legislature addresses these issues and amends the statutes, a trial court should be very circumspect in exercising its discretion to order blood tests,” the court ruled.
Schwartz, the Encino attorney, said the ruling established a “flawed and dangerous precedent.”
The decision effectively took away “the only father they have ever known and the only reasonable source of their support,” Schwartz said in a letter asking the state Supreme Court to depublish the ruling.
The Reeses are just happy that the legal ordeal is over.
Shortly after the appellate court’s latest decision, Reese and his ex-wife reached a settlement: She agreed not to seek child support and he agreed to drop the lawsuit.
Reese, who has since remarried and divorced a second time, said he will honor Rebecca’s wishes not to contact the children. Perhaps, he said, the children will contact him later. “Maybe, I could be something like a stepfather or big brother to them,” he said.
Rebecca, who has also remarried, said she did not want to comment on the case, except to say, “I do not have any faith in the justice system.
“My kids are loved and they are very happy,” Rebecca said. “This entire [litigation] has taught me that you can’t legislate love.”
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