In addition to looking at a statute's plain language, the court will consider its history and background and how the specific statute fits within the broader statutory scheme. When a statute is ambiguous, this may include an assessment of how its construction implicates public policy. Because the court considers statutes in the context of the broader act in which they are situated, the court reads them in conjunction with statutes addressing the same subject matter, ensuring a harmonious, common-sense reading.
Bani Chatterjee (Chatterjee) and Taya King (King) were two women who were in a committed, long-term domestic relationship when they agreed to bring a child into their relationship. Chatterjee pleaded in the district court that during the course of their relationship, and with Chatterjee's active participation, King adopted a child (Child) from Russia. Chatterjee supported King and Child financially, lived in the family home, and co-parented Child for a number of years before their commitment to each other foundered and they dissolved their relationship. Chatterjee never adopted Child. After they ended their relationship, King moved to Colorado and sought to prevent Chatterjee from having any contact with Child. Chatterjee filed a petition in the district court to establish parentage and determine custody and timesharing. Chatterjee alleged that she was a presumed natural parent under the former codification of the New Mexico Uniform Parentage Act. She further claimed to be the equitable or de facto parent of Child, and as such, was entitled to relief. In response to Chatterjee's petition, King filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 1-012(B) NMRA. In the motion to dismiss, King neither admitted nor denied any of the facts that Chatterjee claimed in the petition. King instead argued that Chatterjee was a third party who was seeking custody and visitation of Child and that NMSA 1978, Section 40-4-9.1(K) (1999) of the Dissolution of Marriage Act, NMSA 1978, §§ 40-4-1 to -20 (1973, as amended through 2011), prohibited a third party from receiving custody rights absent a showing of unfitness of the natural or adoptive parent. The district court dismissed the petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Chatterjee then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which held that Chatterjee did not have standing to seek joint custody absent a showing of King's unfitness because she was neither the biological nor the adoptive mother of Child.
Did Chatterjee have standing to seek joint custody of the child absent a showing of King's unfitness?
The Supreme Court of New Mexico held that Chatterjee had standing to pursue joint custody of the child. The plain language of the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA), N.M. Stat. Ann. §§ 40-11-1 to 40-11-23 (1986, as amended through 2004), instructed courts to apply N.M. Stat. Ann. § 40-11-5(A)(4), which specified criteria for establishing a presumption that a man was a natural parent, to women. Commentary by the drafters of the UPA supported application of the provisions related to determining paternity to the determination of maternity. This holding was supported by New Mexico's public policy to encourage the support of children.