The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to review a bitter custody battle over 8-year-old Anna Mae He, whose biological parents have been fighting for years to get her back from the family that has raised her since she was an infant.
The high court denied an application by Jerry and Louise Baker to stop a Tennessee Supreme Court mandate ordering that Anna Mae He be reunited with her natural parents, Jack and Casey He.
The court also denied the Bakers' petition to review the case and reverse the Tennessee court's decision.
The Hes put Anna Mae in what they said was temporary foster care with the Bakers when she was nearly a month old. They have been fighting to reunify with their daughter for seven years.
The Bakers have argued that the Hes agreed to let Anna Mae live with them until she was 18 years old. The Bakers had an early victory when, in 2004, a state court granted them parental rights over Anna Mae, a decision that was upheld in the lower courts. Then, in January, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed that decision, ordering that Anna Mae be returned to Jack and Casey He.
Joy and Devastation
The two families, expectedly, had sharply differing reactions to the Court's decision in the controversial custody battle Monday.
"This is the most wonderful and amazing news for my whole family," said Jack He. " I want to sing the song 'Amazing Grace' to everybody!"
On the other side of the story, Jerry and Louise Baker, who have waged a desperate fight to keep the 8-year-old, were reportedly devastated by the news.
According to their attorney, Larry Parrish, Jerry Baker said, "We can get through this."
'A Bomb Dropped'
"Once again, the U.S. Supreme Court has slammed the door of justice in the face of an innocent child who has nowhere else to turn," said Debbie Grabarkiewicz of the child advocacy organization Hear My Voice, which has supported the Bakers in their fight to keep Anna Mae. "We had hoped, that after eight years, this court would finally take a look at the injustice that has been done to this child."
The Bakers' attorney said that even though the Bakers were prepared for the decision and knew that the Supreme Court would most likely deny their petition, they were still disappointed.
"This is such a major thing, that even if you expect it, it's like expecting to have a bomb dropped on your head," Parrish told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit. "You look up, see it coming, and hope it won't go off. But it did."
"The recent decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court speak for themselves," said Jack He. "While the recent actions taken by the Bakers also speak for themselves. Out of respect for the juvenile court gag order, I will not at this time be making any further comment."
Pastor LaSimba Gray of New Sardis Baptist Church, who is president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in Memphis and has been supporting Jack and Casey He in their fight to get Anna Mae back, said he hoped today's ruling would mark the end of Anna Mae's legal saga.
"I'm delighted. I'm hopeful this will expedite the process of returning Anna Mae to her rightful parents. Hopefully, this will be the last judicial appeal that the Bakers will have in this process to delay the return of Anna Mae to her parents," he said.
"The court ruled that Anna Mae should be returned to them in an expeditious manner, but it's been six months and we're going into the seventh month. While we did not expect them to return Anna Mae to her parents overnight, we certainly didn't expect it to take seven months."
Bakers Refuse to Give Up
Despite the Supreme Court decision, the Bakers continue to fight.
In federal court papers filed June 12, 2007, the Bakers made another plea to overturn the Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that orders Anna Mae He returned to her biological parents. The Bakers argue for a "writ of habeas corpus," that is, an order challenging the state's custody of Anna Mae.
The Bakers said the Tennessee Supreme Court and others involved were "amputating [Anna Mae's] legs" and that the court's rulings "are indefensible violations of rights secured to [Anna Mae] by the United States Constitution."
They called the Hes "strangers" who "have become monsters in her world," while they say they are her parents in "every single respect." Denouncing the court's rulings, the Bakers said, "No civilized person ever would have conceived the child custody exception as an instrument to leave this nation's children exposed to unbridled … violation of the most fundamental and most basic and most elementary rights conferred by the United States Constitution. If we have stooped to such a level, we should re-examine if we remain a civilized society."
Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. argued in papers filed June 18 that the Tennessee Supreme Court properly found that the Hes never abandoned their daughter Anna Mae and that the district court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.
He also criticized Parrish for including "a number of extreme and horrifying hypotheticals" in his filing. "The Hes have full and intact parental rights. The Bakers should not be permitted to usurp those rights," Cooper wrote.
Parrish filed a motion Monday, replying to the attorney general's response to his petition for habeas corpus in U.S. District Court. In it, Parrish argued that Anna Mae will suffer "substantial harm" if the motion is denied, the federal court has jurisdiction to hear the case, and "habeas corpus" applies here. (Habeas corpus is typically used to challenge criminal detention and is not typically used in custody situations.)
By taking Anna Mae from the Bakers, the state is treating the child as "nothing more than a sack of potatoes to be moved about as gently or roughly as the state, without concern for [Anna Mae's] personhood, chooses," the filing said.
The fact that Anna Mae suffers harm and trauma because of old mistakes by Tennessee courts "is no solace" to the girl, Parrish wrote in his response. "Harm is harm is harm and trauma is trauma is trauma," he wrote. This final plea may be the Bakers' last hope.
"If the Federal District Court chooses to address the merits to decide whether Anna's constitutional rights were violated, I am extremely optimistic," said Parrish. "My concern is that the Federal District Court will find a technicality to avoid deciding whether [Anna Mae's] constitutional rights were violated."
If the federal court doesn't intervene, Anna Mae is expected to be permanently reunited with her biological family and two younger siblings sometime in late July.
With reporting contributed by Lauren Pearle.