The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday declined to give shared custody of a dog named Honey to an unmarried couple that split up.
The justices, who heard oral arguments May 14 in Portland, issued a one-page ruling — called a memorandum of decision — that did not explain their reasoning. Those documents are not posted on the court system’s website.
Under Maine law, animals are considered to be property. A judge may order married couples to share custody of companion animals as part of a property settlement, but not unmarried couples who are breaking up.
Honey, a 4-year-old female lab/shepherd mix, was the pet in dispute, and Jessica Sardina, 25, wanted the dog to live with her and Sardina’s two dogs, Murphy and Beasley. She’s appealed a finding by District Court Judge Patrick Larson last fall that Kelvin Liriano, 25, of Old Town was the dog’s sole owner because his was the only signature on the adoption papers.
It was apparent from the questions the justices asked at oral arguments two weeks ago that they felt the Legislature and not the state’s highest court was the proper place to change Maine law.
Sardina’s attorney, Eugene Sullivan of Bangor, said Tuesday that he and others would do just that.
“I respect the decision of the court,” Sullivan said. “We believe in our client’s cause to establish rights for unmarried people to companion animals — an issue which could impact countless Mainers going forward. We will strive to work with the legislative branch to create laws regarding this important issue.”
Sullivan earlier this month urged the justices to establish de facto rights to pets in a manner similar to how they establish that a person is a de facto parent to a child to whom he or she is not related biologically.
Companion animals should not be treated as property, Sullivan argued in his brief.
“A dog that greets you and plays with you and loves you is presently on the same level as an inanimate object, like a couch, a diploma or a blender,” he said. “We won’t see any of those objects on Christmas cards, but people across the country will put their companion animals on holiday cards to other family members and friends because they view their pets as part of their family. This is true for both married and unmarried couples.”
Liriano’s attorney, Jonathan Hunter of Bangor, disagreed in his brief. He said that there’s no legal precedent in Maine for what Sardina was asking the court to do.
“There is no doubt that, on an emotional level, a pet is very different from a couch or a blender,” he said in his brief. “So too is a prized family heirloom. Legally, however, they are all personal property and treated the same in most respects, and have been for hundreds of years.”
Hunter declined to comment on the court’s decision.