High court mulls landmark domestic violence ruling; Case centers on change of venue to another state

By Eric Newhouse, Tribune Projects Editor

Reprinted from the October 16, 2002 edition of the Great Falls Tribune. Reprinted by permission of the Great Falls Tribune.

HELENA - Supreme Court justices weighed a new issue Tuesday, whether victims of domestic violence should be entitled to child custody proceedings in states where they feel safer. It's an issue that never has been decided under a new law, so the ruling will be important for battered women, said Patricia Novotny, representing the Northwest Women's Law Center in Seattle.

The case involves Ruth Drollinger of Livingston, who moved to Washington state to get away from her abusive ex-husband three years ago and now wants to transfer legal jurisdiction there, her attorneys said. They are urging the justices to overturn a lower-court ruling that further legal proceedings between her and her ex-husband, Mark Stoneman, should not be handed over to Washington courts.

Given Stoneman's violent history, Drollinger said she feared for her safety and that of her children if required to return to Montana for various court appearances. The ruling will set a precedent in Montana, Novotny noted. "This issue has yet to reach an appellate court in any of the states, so this is a very important case," Novotny said. "Other states will look to Montana to see how they have protected victims of domestic violence."

Thirty states around the country - including Montana - have adopted laws based on a model developed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Montana's version of this law, passed in 1999, changes the focus for a judge deciding whether to relinquish jurisdiction to another state. The previous law said: "The court shall consider if it is in the best interest of the child that another state assume jurisdiction." The new law, however, lists factors that a judge must consider, foremost among them being domestic violence.

"The state that can best protect the safety of the parties is also the jurisdiction that is in the best interests of the child," Novotny told the court.

According to court briefs, 11,000 women around the country are severely assaulted by their partners on an average day. It estimated that 3.3 million children are exposed to such violence every year. "We're talking about safety, and I'd like to believe it comes first," said Mike Kakuk of Helena, who represents Drollinger.

But Karl Knuchel of Livingston, who represents Stoneman, contended that his client does not pose a threat to his former wife and that other factors require the remaining issues in the couple's divorce be handled in Montana courts. Stoneman was convicted of domestic abuse against her in 1990, 1991, 1994 and 1996. Drollinger divorced him in 1999 and moved her four children to Washington state to be near her family.

"If you're talking about the safety of the mother and child, wouldn't common sense suggest that their safety is greater in a state further away from the abuser?" asked Justice William Leaphart.

The District Court in Bozeman is more familiar with the case, Knuchel said. He also argued that the new law should not give battered spouses free license to leave for another state. "Wouldn't the sheer fact that this other court is 600 miles away and can offer better protection make better sense?" Justice Terry Trieweiler asked.

"It might," Knuchel said, "but it might also mean that my client withdraws from these proceedings and withdraws from his children's lives. That's a very real possibility."

A decision by the high court is not expected for weeks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.