Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Gann v. Acosta (Cal. Ct. App. - March 15, 2022)

I love that this opinion came out today. Even wholly apart from the fact that otherwise, the Ninth Circuit and California appellate courts would have published absolutely nothing today.

It's a riddle in the form of a legal opinion. Or, more accurately, it involves a question about language; in particular, the meaning of a particular term. Here: Step-parent.

We all know, at least loosely, what stepparent means. In its traditional form, you're a kid, your parents get divorced, and your mother or father marries someone one. Stepparent.

Obviously, with modern alternative familial arrangements, things can get complicated. But for present purposes, we don't need to get into any of that.

Let's say that a statute or regulation lets you visit someone who's your "stepparent". (In truth, here, the regulation says that you can't visit a stepparent, but to explain why would require more detail than is presently necessary.) Normally, we would know what that would mean.

But let's figure out if A can visit B in the following hypotheticals. The common facts (to make it simple for now):  A is the child of Mom and Dad, Mom and Dad divorce, and then Mom marries B. Clearly, at this point, B's A's stepparent. That's true (in common parlance) even after A's no longer a minor and no longer living in Mom and B's house. So let's assume that fact for present purposes:  B's an adult and out of the house, but formerly lived with Mom and B.

Hypo 1: Mom and B then divorce. Does B remain A's stepparent?

Hypo 2: Mom dies. Mom and B never divorced, and were living together at B's death. Does B remain A's stepparent?

I'm not sure I know the answers to these questions, honestly. Today's case makes me realize that who we call a "stepparent" -- even in "traditional" settings" -- is pretty darn unclear. Sure, when Mom and B are married, I generally know the answer. And, legally, I know that when Mom dies, it's the equivalent (legally) to a divorce, in that both events sever the marriage.

But I don't know if the answers to Hypos 1 and 2 are both No, or both Yes, or whether the answer to one is different than the other. (I suspect that a "No, then Yes" answer would be more popular than "Yes, but No.")

The case here approximates No. 2. With various complexities; in particular, that the inmate here killed the person I've called "B" in the hypos (e.g., his "Maybe Stepparent"), and currently wants to visit his spouse, but the regulation says you can't have such visits if (inter alia) you killed your stepparent.

I'll leave you in suspense as to whether the Court of Appeal says that B was the inmate's "stepparent" or not. (And you'll be disappointed in the answer regardless, since the opinion simply gives deference to the agency, so doesn't really answer the actual linguistic question of what the word actually mean.)