Holy name change! Magistrate oversteps bounds

Friday, October 18, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 42

“You can call me Mess.” That’s what I envision the subject of this column saying in 13 years. When, as a teenager, he’ll consider part of his job description to be frustrating his parents. But I’m ahead of myself.

In East Tennessee a few weeks back, a mom and dad went to court in a dispute over their newborn baby’s last name. The father wanted the child to have the mother’s last name, and vice versa.

Unselfishness is unlikely to be found in domestic relations court. In any state. Even with lawyers available to help them, this couple disregarded the advice of Abe Lincoln and St. Paul and opted to litigate.

The child’s first name, the name that that was not in dispute, was Messiah. Messiah was one of the 400 most popular baby names for 2012, per the Social Security Administration.

This family court magistrate took it upon herself to “think out into the future,” consider this child’s parents’ Christian background and community, and declare “The word Messiah is a title [and it’s] been earned by [only] one person ….”

And, of course, we all know who that is.

So, even though the first name was not in dispute, the magistrate changed it to “Martin.” Oh yeah, she also ruled that the father’s last name would attach.

The mother’s reaction: “I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”

With a little help from the ACLU, the parents united their efforts in an appeal to the real judge.

No offense intended to anyone, but magistrates in Tennessee are appointed by judges. While they have broad discretion and authority, the judge, who is elected by the voters, has the final say in all matters.

In this case – surprise, surprise! – the judge ruled that the magistrate had run afoul of the Establishment Clause.

Plus, the local press reported, “the court’s purpose was to determine the last name of the child, not his first name.”

I’m imagining a conversation that might have taken place between the judge and the magistrate. The words “What were you thinking?” play a key role.

No doubt the magistrate believed she was called upon by a higher power to do what she did. There’s no other believable explanation. She had to know this case would make headlines, not just for her, but also for her boss.

But, we are taught, it is not a judge’s duty to witness for her religion when on the job. Especially when doing so violates the big C.

The mother’s reaction to the ultimate outcome: “I’m just happy – I really don’t have nothing to say. I’m just glad it’s over with.”

For what it’s worth, nearly 4,000 babies born in 2012 were named “Jesus.” Around 500 were named “Mohammed.”

For a comprehensive treatment of who can name whom what and why, see “Can You Name Your Baby Messiah” by Dahlia Lithwick, in the Aug. 13, 2013 issue of Slate.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net. ming@att.net