Thursday, April 20, 2000

High court to hear Justin case

Appeals court gave Ky. jurisdiction in custody dispute

BY Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Ohio Supreme Court voted 6-1 Wednesdayto hear the case of 3-year-old Justin, giving new hope to the Ohio couple who have tried to adopt him for the past two years.

        Rich and Cheryl Asente of Girard, near Youngstown, want Ohio's highest court to reverse a November ruling by Ohio's 11th District Court of Appeals. That ruling said Ohio does not have jurisdiction in Justin's case and should comply with the Kentucky judge who ordered Justin returned to his biological parents, Regina Moore and Jerry Dorning of Covington.

        “It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders,” said Mr. Asente, who took Justin into his home in February 1998. “I know it doesn't mean we're going to win the case, but just the significance that they're going to hear it ... this is such overwhelmingly good news.”

        Susan Eisenman, the Columbus lawyer representing the Asentes, agreed. She believes Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery helped persuade Supreme Court justices to get involved. In February, Ms. Montgomery filed a brief that said the appellate court was wrong and the Supreme Court should review the case.

        “The Ohio attorney general helped to affirm the fact that this is an important issue,” Ms. Eisenman said.

        On Wednesday, Justice Francis E. Sweeney Jr. was the only one to vote against hearing the case. The case is now on an expedited track and oral arguments could be heard in July or August.

        The biological parents could not be reached for comment. Their attorneys, though, did not consider the Supreme Court's involvement as either positive or negative.

        Fort Wright lawyer Stephanie Dietz, representing Jerry Dorning, saw the court's promised review as inevitable.

        “I'm not surprised,” she said. “It's a high-publicity case. Everyone wants to make sure they're doing what's right for both sides.”

        Dick Cullison of the Northern Kentucky Legal Aid Society is concerned that the court review will prolong the case.

        “I hope it doesn't artificially delay a ... resolution,” he said. “Ultimately, our legal theories are correct.”

        Justin was 11 months old when Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning let him live with the Asentes.

        They have argued that they signed consent documents with the understanding that they had until a special hearing, which never took place, to change their minds.

        Kenton Circuit Judge Patricia Summe ruled last year that Justin should be returned to Ms. Moore and Mr. Dorning because they did not make an informed decision when letting him move in with the Asentes. The Ohio couple has protested the decision by filing a pending appeal with the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

        The Ohio Court of Appeals became involved after Ohio Probate Judge R.R. Denny Clunk kept the Asentes' adoption petition alive and ruled that Ohio has jurisdiction of Justin's case. He also said the Asentes would be the better parents.

        The Asentes previously adopted Justin's full biological brother, Joey, now 4.


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