exposing the dark side of adoption
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Alabama parents pin hopes on shift in court



TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Alabama Supreme Court's decision to give Sam Johnson to his biological father in Florida was supposed to end a tug-of-war lasting almost five years between two families.

But Sam's adoptive parents refused to let that happen and will ask the state's high court to reconsider.

Now, both families are counting on the Alabama Supreme Court -- which ruled last week on the so-called Baby Sam case by a thin margin of 5-4 -- to side with them after undergoing a dramatic shift to the right in January.

Sam's biological father, Christopher Vietri, believes the court's new makeup will only reaffirm his victory.

Supporters of Vietri, who lives in New Port Richey, believe the conservative court will favor a child remaining with a natural parent, especially if that means the justices can follow the strict letter of the law.

"This is a very conservative decision they've reached," said Martha Jane Patton, Vietri's Alabama attorney. "And it's an even more conservative court coming in."

But supporters of the adoptive parents, Mark and Tracy Johnson, also could claim a conservative stance because of their desire to keep Sam away from a father who had a child out of wedlock and was accused of abusing the baby's teenage mother.

Howard Walthall, a law professor who specializes in the state Supreme Court at the Samford University Cumberland School of Law, said Southern Baptists -- who make up a large voting bloc in Alabama -- may see what the Johnsons want as conservative because they see it as a way to promote adoption as an alternative to abortion.

The Supreme Court surprisingly did not split along party lines in the Baby Sam case. Three Democrats and two Republicans voted to give Sam to Vietri. Three Republicans and one Democrat opposed it.

"That's a mix," Walthall said. "The scattering of judges like this is not typical."

The current Alabama Supreme Court consists of five Republicans and four Democrats but in January that will turn into eight Republicans and one Democrat. The sole Democrat, Douglas Johnstone, voted in support of giving Sam to Vietri.

Experts say the court has become more conservative in the last few elections. This time around, the justices campaigned on conservative issues, particularly the new chief justice Roy Moore, who vowed to display the Ten Commandments at the Supreme Court building if elected.

Some legal experts wonder if the supreme court waited until after this month's judicial elections to make a ruling in Baby Sam case that has made national headlines and divided much of the state.

"This is a political hot potato," said John McClusky, a Tuscaloosa attorney specializing in family law. "Whoever votes on the case is going to catch hell."

The Johnsons and Vietri have been fighting over who should have custody of Sam since he was 2 months old.

Two years ago, a Tuscaloosa judge ruled the Johnsons should have him. The judge broke new ground by terminating Vietri's rights based on a concept known as "prebirth abandonment" which existed under Florida law but not Alabama law. That means a biological father can lose rights to children if they fail to provide sufficient emotional and financial support to the mother during pregnancy.

An appeals court upheld the decision but on Friday, after having the case for more than 18 months, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the judge's decision.

The current justices probably will decide whether to reconsider the ruling, but because of holidays they may not actually have time to reconsider the case if they so chose. Scott Stapp, the Johnsons' Alabama attorney, expects the new court to look at this case.

2000 Nov 23