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Georgia Judge Who Blocked Transgender Name Changes Overruled by Appeals Court

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 03, 2017 1:08 PM

When Rebecca Elizabeth Feldhaus and Delphine Renee Baumert attempted to legally change their names -- to Rowan Elijah Feldhaus and Andrew Norman Baumert, respectively -- they were told by a Georgia judge that their choices weren't gender-neutral enough to suit his taste. "I do not approve of changing names from male to female -- male names to obvious female names, and vice versa," Columbia County Superior Court Judge J. David Roper, said in denying Feldhaus's request. "I think it is misleading to the public and think that it is dangerous in some circumstances for one -- for the public not to know whether they're dealing with a male or a female."

But an appeals court has ruled that Judge Roper abused his discretion in denying the name change petitions, and ordered that the changes be granted.

Names You Can Live With

Both Feldhaus and Baumert were born female but identify as male. Under Georgia law, if a person follows the proper procedure to petition for a name change, "there is nothing in the law prohibiting a person from taking or assuming another name, so long as he does not assume a name for the purpose of defrauding other persons through a mistake of identity." And in rejecting Feldhaus and Baumert's petitions, he wrote that "[n]ame changes which allow a person to assume the role of a person of the opposite sex are, in effect, a type of fraud on the general public," and that "third parties should not have to contend with the quandary, predicament, and dilemma of a person who presents as a male, but who has an obviously female name, and vice versa."

Roper also said that name changes that were not to more gender-neutral names "offend the sensibilities and mores of a substantial portion of the citizens of this state." When it came to Baumert's request, Roper suggested several names he said he "can live with," including Morgan, Shannon, Shaun and Jaimie, and when Baumert rejected those options, Roper denied his petition.

Sound Legal Discretion

In a terse opinion, the Fourth Division Court of Appeals overruled Roper's decisions, reiterating that "a trial court's conclusions about any person's 'confusion' or 'embarrassment' was 'not a valid basis for denying' a petition for a name change," and that the only basis for denying a petition for a name change was evidence that "showed that the petitioner was acting under an 'improper motive,' such as intentionally assuming another person's name for the purpose of embarrassing that person or avoiding the petitioner's own criminal past." Absent that evidence, the appeals court ruled, Roper should not have denied the name change requests.

Name and gender change petitions are becoming more common in courts, even if some judges remain resistant. If you need help with a name change or a gender change petition, or if yours has been denied, contact an experienced civil rights attorney in your area.

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