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A legal boost for noncustodial parents

In California, a gain for fathers' rights may ripple out nationwide.

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A decision by the California Supreme Court is setting the stage for a national shift on one of the most contentious areas of divorce law. By keeping a mother from moving to Ohio with her children against the father's will, the court is sending legal tremors across the US.

Eight years ago, a California Supreme Court decision gave custodial parents - who are overwhelmingly mothers - broad powers to move as they wished, and it became the basis for many other states' laws. Now, the same court has moderated its stance, giving noncustodial parents more of a legal voice in the process, and suggesting that its initial ruling had been misapplied.

The decision comes at a time when the fathers' rights movement has been gaining momentum in state courts and legislatures. But California's ruling stands as perhaps the strongest endorsement yet of the idea that the balance of power between divorced parents has swung too far toward mothers - and that judges and lawmakers must try to stake out a new middle ground.

"It seems to me, since many states relied on [the 1996 California ruling] to decide what to do with their own relocation principles, as though there may be some rethinking of custody rules," says Margaret Brinig, a professor of family law at the University of Iowa. "You get these sorts of swings."

Legal scholars are still parsing the 6-to-1 decision to determine exactly what the court intended. The general consensus is that the language of the decision is far from revolutionary; the court itself says that it is merely fine-tuning the 1996 so-called Burgess ruling.

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