By Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A nine-month-old boy will for now remain with his mother, a court ruled on Monday, in a custody battle with the baby's father, Olympic gold medal skier Bode Miller, that has raised questions about the rights of pregnant women to relocate.
Miller, 36, and ex-girlfriend Sara McKenna, 27, have been fighting for primary physical custody of the little boy since before the child was born. Legal battles over the boy he calls Nate and she calls Sam have played out in two states, New York and California.
Miller, who is currently on the World Cup tour and will compete in his fifth Olympics in Sochi in February, lives in southern California. He accused McKenna of moving to New York last December when she was seven months pregnant in an effort to seek out a state with courts that might be more sympathetic to the custody concerns of the mother.
McKenna, a former Marine who is attending graduate school at Columbia University on the G.I. bill, said she moved to Manhattan because she could not give up her dream of attending the Ivy League school.
A New York City family court referee sided with Miller in May, lambasting McKenna for leaving the West Coast before co-parenting details could be worked out. Court Attorney Referee Fiordaliza Rodriguez of New York County Family Court sent the case back to California where a judge gave Miller and his new wife, pro-volleyball player Morgan Beck-Miller, custody of the baby boy.
McKenna's attorneys appealed, and a five-judge panel ruled on November 14 that McKenna's rights had been violated and that jurisdiction belongs in New York because the baby, born February 23, was a resident of the state. The decision effectively kicked the case back to the courtroom of Rodriguez, where a hearing was held on Monday.
At the court appearance, Rodriguez scheduled a new custody hearing for December 9 to give the parents and a court-appointed lawyer for the baby time to prepare. Until then, Rodriguez ruled, McKenna can keep the baby with her.
McKenna said after court that she was "just happy to be back with my son."
Though both McKenna and Miller say they are seeking a co-parenting agreement, each side claims to be better equipped to offer full-time care for the boy.
McKenna's lawyer said his client had seen her baby only for about 48 hours over the past two months and argued that Miller's busy travel schedule was not suited to raising a young child.
Miller's attorneys countered that before he was given custody, he had been granted very limited time with his son, and they said both father and stepmother have the time and money to fully care for the child.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Bob Burgdorfer)