Judge Robert S. Smith
image: Rick Kopstein/New York Law Journal
via CAAI News Media
New York Law Journal
February 17, 2010
ALBANY - New York courts, not Cambodian government agencies, should resolve the custody claims of two New York residents over a Cambodian-born boy who has lived in New York, the Court of Appeals determined today.
The 7-0 Court ruled that it would unfairly leave the status of New Yorkers who are attempting to adopt any foreign child in flux if it were to recognize the Cambodian government's awarding of custody to Johnson & Johnson heiress Elizabeth "Libet" Johnson in her dispute with former boyfriend Lionel Bissoon.
"It may be debatable ... whether parental rights created by a Cambodian adoption should, under circumstances like these, be treated as valid in New York," Judge Robert S. Smith wrote for the Court in Matter of Adoption of John Doe, 20. "But once parental rights have been validly established under New York law, between an adoptive parent and child who continue to live in New York, the choice of law governing the parental relationship is much less difficult: New York law applies."
The text of today's Court of Appeals rulings will appear in the print edition of tomorrow's Law Journal.
To decide otherwise would create "unacceptable uncertainty for every New York parent raising a child he or she has adopted in a foreign country," Judge Smith added.
Ms. Johnson had argued that decisions by two Cambodian agencies resulted in her having legal custody of the boy she and Mr. Bissoon first tried to adopt in 2003 from an orphanage she had established in Cambodia.
But both Manhattan Surrogate Kristin Booth Glen and an Appellate Division, First Department panel (NYLJ, Nov. 26, 2008) ruled that Mr. Bissoon was the "adoptive father" of the Cambodian youngster, who is now 7 and that the rulings by the Cambodian agencies were "null and void."
Mr. Bissoon, a celebrity diet doctor, had challenged Ms. Johnson's adoption of the boy identified in court papers only as "John Doe."
A romantic relationship between Ms. Johnson and Mr. Bissoon fell apart a year after they sought to adopt. Mr. Bissoon, a dual citizen of the United States and Trinidad & Tobago, was initially awarded custody by Cambodia. Mr. Bissoon renounced fatherhood status before Cambodian agencies in 2005 but later changed his mind and asserts his right as father in New York courts.
The Court today rejected Ms. Johnson's contention that the "act of state" doctrine requires that New York courts recognize the Cambodian government's adoption decree in her favor.
Judge Smith noted that the Court hopes there will be no need for further intervention by New York courts.
While Mr. Bissoon has contended that he is free to prevent any adoption attempt by Ms. Johnson and to seek to remove the boy from her home, Judge Smith suggested that the Court does not believe that would be in the best interests of the youngster.
"Since he says he does not want to [remove John Doe from Ms. Johnson's home], neither we nor the courts below have had any occasion to decide whether LMB's [Mr. Bissroon's] rights are as extensive as he claims.," Judge Smith wrote. "That question is academic, and we hope it will remain so."