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Divorce and distance

January 15, 1999

Love blooms, a couple marries and eventually a child is born. Then the romance fades, the couple divorces and the parent who receives custody decides to move, taking the child far away from the ex-spouse. There's nothing in West Virginia law to stop that from happening, or even compel a court review of whether the move is in the child's best interests, a situation Truman Chafin wants to change.

Chafin, the majority leader of the state senate, went to the state Supreme Court this week to ask that the justices make two changes in the state's divorce laws. One would force the parent with custody to go to court before moving of of state. The other would make joint custody the preferred option in all divorce cases.

The justices deferred action Tuesday, after Chief Justice Larry Starcher suggested such changes should be made by the legislature. Chafin's attorney said his client wants the court to act, so Chafin can't be accused of using the legislative process for his own self-interest.

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The Charleston bureau of The Associated Press reports that Chafin was criticized for introducing two previous proposals after his own divorce and is trying to avoid a repeat of conflict-of-interest accusations in 1998.

We sympathize with Chafin on that score. Even if the bill were introduced by someone else and Chafin declined to vote, some would say his colleagues passed it to curry favor with a legislative leader. But new laws should be made by the legislature, where hearings can be held, compromises worked out and the checks and balances provided by two legislative houses and the governor can shape fair legislation.

In this case, the state Supreme Court should decline to hear this matter not only to maintain the separation of powers, but to guarantee that anyone who wants to challenge the constitutionality of such changes will get a fair hearing. Chafin's stated intent - to keep one parent from using a child's absence to punish the other - is laudable, but as we've learned in this business, there are two sides to every story and it's up to the legislature to listen to both.

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