In a case that outraged women's rights groups and prompted a change in state law, an appeals court has sided with a Spokane judge who vacated a woman's divorce because she was pregnant.

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SPOKANE — In a case that outraged women’s rights groups and prompted a change in state law, an appeals court has sided with a Spokane judge who vacated a woman’s divorce because she was pregnant.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine was right to throw out Shawnna Hughes’ default divorce decree because it differed from the petition served on her husband, violating his right to due process and fairness, the three-judge panel ruled yesterday.


Bastine’s November ruling cited a state law that says marriages can’t be dissolved in such cases until the paternity of the unborn child is established, so the state knows who should pay child support.


In divorce papers served on Carlos Hughes and state child welfare officials in April 2004, Hughes said she was not pregnant. She amended the documents to note the pregnancy in October 2004, saying Hughes was not the father. Her baby girl was born in March 2005.


Carlos Hughes, who was in jail when Hughes filed, did not contest the divorce. The amended papers were not served on him or the state Department of Social and Health Services.


In October, a court commissioner signed default divorce papers that contained a revised child-support order for the couple’s two children as well as the declaration that Shawnna Hughes was pregnant with a third child and that Hughes was not the father.


The appeals court ruled Bastine was correct in vacating the divorce order because Carlos Hughes and the state had not been properly notified of her pregnancy.


“Requiring Ms. Hughes to fairly give due notice and an opportunity to be heard to Mr. Hughes and the state will cause delay,” the appellate panel wrote in affirming Bastine’s ruling. “But, just delay is not justice denied.”


The case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union and more than a dozen women’s rights and domestic-violence prevention groups, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs after Shawnna Hughes’ lawyers appealed.


The case prompted a change in Washington law, which now prohibits judges from denying or delaying a divorce solely on the basis of pregnancy. Supporters of the law, which took effect July 23, said it is intended to avoid conflicts between divorce and child-support laws.


Shawnna Hughes’s lawyer, Terry Sloyer of the Center for Justice in Spokane, was on vacation and unavailable for comment, her office said.


Kristin Boraas of Seattle, who filed briefs on behalf of the ACLU and a number of women’s rights groups, did not immediately return a call for comment. Northwest Women’s Law Center lawyer Nancy Sapiro also was on vacation on today, her office said.


Sloyer had argued that Bastine misinterpreted state law intended to protect the rights of children and the state, and that a woman should not be forced to remain married just because she’s pregnant. In Hughes’ case, her husband was serving a jail sentence for domestic violence and under a court order to stay away from her.


The state of Washington objected to Hughes’ divorce because it might leave the state unable to identify a father for repayment of welfare money used to support the child.


Hughes, a 27-year-old medical assistant, has an unlisted number and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.