Fun Name Change Cases:

I have a Slate piece this morning on the subject. It's got 1069, III, Mary R., Misteri Nigger, Santa Claus (plus Santa Robert Clause), Koriander, They, and even Darren QX [pronounced "Lloyd"] Bean!. (I use the period after the exclamation point advisedly.) Check it out.

The article also prompted some more submissions from readers. Chris Jenkins and Kevin Wells e-mailed me about Sheppard v. Speir (Ark. App. 2004), involves litigation between two unmarried parents over a child's name (a topic I didn't cover in my Slate piece). The name was "Weather'By Dot Com Chanel Fourcast Sheppard," selected by the mother; the father, a TV weatherman, sued for custody of the child, got it, and tried to change the name to Samuel Charles Speir. The question was whether Samuel Charles Speir was so unusual a name that it should be rejected.

No, wait, let me check my notes. OK, the question was about Weather'By Dot Com Chanel Fourcast, and the appellate opinion provides this excerpt from an exchange between the trial judge and the mother:

The Court: I simply do not understand why you named this child — his legal name is Weather'by Dot Com Chanel Fourcast Sheppard. Now, before you answer that, Mr. — the plaintiff in this action is a weatherman for a local television station.

Sheppard: Yes.

The Court: Okay. Is that why you named this child the name that you gave the child?

Sheppard: It — it stems from a lot of things.

The Court: Okay. Tell me what they are.

Sheppard: Weather'by — I've always heard of Weatherby as a last name and never a first name, so I thought Weatherby would be — and I'm sure you could spell it b-e-e or b-e-a or b-y. Anyway, Weatherby.

The Court: Where did you get the "Dot Com"?

Sheppard: Well, when I worked at NBC, I worked on a Teleprompter computer.

The Court: All right.

Sheppard: All right, and so that's where the Dot Com [came from]. I just thought it was kind of cute, Dot Com, and then instead of — I really didn't have a whole lot of names because I had nothing to work with. I don't know family names. I don't know any names of the Speir family, and I really had nothing to work with, and I thought "Chanel"? No, that's stupid, and I thought "Shanel," I've heard of a black little girl named Shanel.

The Court: Well, where did you get "Fourcast"?

Sheppard: Fourcast? Instead of F-o-r-e, like your future forecast or your weather forecast, F-o-u, as in my fourth son, my fourth child, Fourcast. It was --

The Court: So his name is Fourcast, F-o-u-r-c-a-s-t?

Sheppard: Yes....

The Court: All right. Now, do you have some objection to him being renamed Samuel Charles?

Sheppard: Yes.

The Court: Why? You think it's better for his name to be Weather'by Dot Com Chanel ... Fourcast, spelled F-o-u-r-c-a-s-t? And in response to that question, I want you to think about what he's going to be — what his life is going to be like when he enters the first grade and has to fill out all [the] paperwork where you fill out — this little kid fills out his last name and his first name and his middle name, okay? So I just want — if your answer to that is yes, you think his name is better today than it would be with Samuel Charles, as his father would like to name him and why. Go ahead.

Sheppard: Yes, I think it's better this way.

The Court: The way he is now?

Sheppard: Yes. He doesn't have to use "Dot Com." I mean, as a grown man, he can use whatever he wants.

The Court: As a grown man, what is his middle name? Dot Com Chanel Fourcast?

Sheppard: He can use Chanel, he can use the letter "C." ...

The court of appeals finished with, "we hold that the trial court did not err in determining that it was in the child's best interest to change his name."

Robert Schwartz also mentions professional comedian Woody Volcano Viagra, but this sporting event I'm running here operates on a strictly amateur basis.

UPDATE: From Patricia Reardon comes the case of Romanceo Sir Tasty Maxibillion. Romanceo -- er, Adrian Scott Williams -- lost, because he was a felon and the state persuaded the court that its "legitimate need to identify Williams by his current name constituted sufficient cause ... to deny Williams' petition."

Boy Named Sue:

So it turns out there is caselaw on this subject (despite what I said earlier), or at least the big picture. It doesn't have to do with the initial naming decision, as in the song. But if a boy wants to change his name to Sue, at least in some states, he may have to show that he is "a transvestite or a transsexual and, if a transsexual, whether he has undergone a sex change operation and is now anatomically and psychologically a woman" -- since otherwise such a change "would be fraught with danger of deception and confusion and contrary to the public interest" -- or at least that Sue "is regarded as a male name in this or some other culture."

Thus, changing your name from William to Veronica or from Stephen to Steffi is not allowed without such a showing; likewise Johnny to Sue. (Application of Anonymous, 587 N.Y.S.2d 548 (City Civ. Ct. 1992); (In re Bobrowich, 2003 WL 230701 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct. 2003).) But the trend for people who really are transsexuals -- which William-to-Veronica ultimately proved to be, but Stephen-to-Steffi apparently wasn't -- is to allow such name changes. (E.g., Matter of McIntyre, 715 A.2d 400 (Pa. 1998); Matter of Eck, 584 A.2d 859 (N.J. Super. 1991).)

Thanks to Timothy Sandefur for the pointer.

Odd Reasoning:

In re Bobrowich, 2003 WL 230701 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct.), was one of the cases that barred a man from changing "an obvious male name" (Stephen) to "a name that is commonly used as a shortened version of the female name" (Steffi), at least absent evidence of transvestitism, transsexuality, or maleness of the name in "some other culture."

But there's more, because Stephen Michael Bobrowich wanted his name changed not just to Steffi Michael Bobrowich, but to Steffi Owned Slave, because "I feel that I have been treated as a slave my whole life, being paid minimum and treat as dirt I wish to show that I am." No dice, the court said, giving a longish discussion of the history of abolition of slavery in New York, and concluding:

Owing to the fact that slavery is illegal in the State of New York, the Court cannot change the name of the petitioner to something that reflects this illegal status and is therefore objectionable. As stated above, since the Court is being asked to issue an order changing the petitioner's name, it could be interpreted that the Court is endorsing this illegal status and reprehensible condition. In Application of Thompson, 82 Misc.2d 460, 369 N.Y.S.2d 278 (Civ Ct. N.Y. Co.1975) the court refused to allow the petitioner to assume the name "Chief Piankhi Ankinbaloye," since by approving the name "chief" the court would be bestowing an apparent title of authority on the petitioner.

Now this just makes no sense. Having a last name of "Slave" doesn't reflect any illegal status, just as having the last name of "Painter" doesn't reflect one's status as a painter.

Nor does a court's approval of the name "Steffi Owned Slave" bestow an apparent title of authority. I'm not sure that even "Chief" would have this effect, but at least there are chiefs (presumably American Indian chiefs or people who hold this title in foreign countries) in the U.S., so someone could think "Chief" is indeed a real title. Everyone knows slavery is illegal in the U.S.; no-one would see this as "an apparent title" "bestow[ed]" by the government. Plus when slavery was legal, it in any event wasn't marked with "Slave" being used together with one's name.

Now I sympathize with the court's desire to play no part in what it sees as an offensive exercise, or one that's likely to cause needless friction and offense to the public. It may well be that some such limitations on official name changes are indeed proper. But the court's ostensible reasoning, it seems to me, is a pretty weak support for its conclusion.

Thanks to Timothy Sandefur for the pointer.

The Winner of the Name Change Derby?

A month ago, the New Mexico Court of Appeals rejected an attempt to change one's name to "Fuck Censorship!" (Thanks to commenter Tom Hynes for the pointer.) The court didn't cite the Darren QX Bean! case, but it did cite Misteri Nigger for the proposition that "one has a common law right to assume any name, and a right to engage in a social experiment, but one does not have a right to require the state to participate in the experiment, especially when the experiment involves epithets or vulgarities.

Fuck Censorship! has to remain, for legal purposes, Variable. Yes, that's it. What's more, In re Mokiligon, 106 P.3d 584 (N.M. App. 2004), expressly upheld the then-not-yet-Variable's right to change his name to Variable. The court did, however, feel the need to stress that "Petitioner is restricted to using the word 'variable' as his legal name. The court is not granting him the power to actually vary his legal name at will and he is limited to using 'variable' ...."

What was Variable's earlier name? I'm glad you asked:

Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokiligon.

From the Talula Does the Hula from Hawaii Decision:

G v. K, N.Z. F.L.R. 385:

Quite frequently judges in the Family Court are dismayed by the eccentricity of names which some litigants have given their children. For example, one family of children have been named after six cylinder Ford motor cars. Other parents have named their twins after a brand of cigarettes, Bensen and Hedges. Another example (identified in published newspaper reports from the Waikato) relates to a child named Passionate Love. Within this region, children have been saddled with names such as Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter and, tragically, Violence.

Recently, for the first time in my experience as a Family Court Judge, the name of a child described in text language has emerged. In that case, the child was named O.crnia. Fortunately, the applicant mother was prepared to accede to a condition of a parenting order so that her child's name be changed to a more orthodox spelling, Oceania.

In this case, however, the youngest daughter of the family of these litigants has been described by the name "Talula does the Hula from Hawaii." ... However, notwithstanding the child is almost nine years of age, her birth has not been registered. I have not heard any explanation about that as yet.

Mrs MacLeod [a lawyer appointed by the court to represent the child] reports that the child, who also is known by the quite musical name of K, is so embarrassed about her given name that she has not revealed it to any of her friends. She fears being mocked and teased, and in that she has a greater level of insight than either of her parents. Mrs MacLeod, in her report, describes that the applicant mother had not given any thought at all to the implications of such a name for her daughter, when her daughter is at the stage of life of seeking to apply for a drivers licence or a passport. Neither has she given any thought to the implications for her daughter should she register for examinations, have her name published (whether for good or ill) or be stopped for routine inquiries by the police while driving. In all facets of life, a child bearing this name would be held up to ridicule and suspicion.

The Court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment which this child's parents have shown in choosing this name for her. It makes a fool of the child, and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, quite unnecessarily.

The parents have a wide discretion as to the name they choose to bestow on their child. Some parents seek to achieve a measure of individuality and uniqueness for their child, and that of itself cannot be criticised. However, these parents have failed in exercising the first and important task of parenthood -- that of naming their child. In exercising this important responsibility parents have a duty to consider what impact will occur on their child's life as a result of its given name. It is not a time to be frivolous, or to create a hurdle for their child's future life.

The Registrar-General has only a very limited discretion to refuse registration of a name presented for a child on registration of that child's birth ...[,]

(8) ... if and only if, -
(a) it might cause offence to a reasonable person; or
(b) it is unreasonably long; or
(c) without justification, it is, includes, or resembles, an official title or rank.
[But, the court concludes, its inherent power allows it to assume guardianship of a child when there is a "need to protect a vulnerable child," which there is in this case. -EV]

To ensure that a suitable name is chosen for the child, and her birth is properly registered, I make an interim order on the application made without notice placing this child under the guardianship of the Court. I appoint Mrs MacLeod the agent of the Court to assist and oversee those processes. I envisage that she will consult with the child's natural guardians and with the child herself, but that any name selected for registration will be subject to the Court's approval. I do not expect that Mrs MacLeod's appointment will be a long lasting one, as it is directed toward repairing the damage these parents have caused by their flippant approach toward their parental duties.

A Different Perspective on Unusual Names:

The discussion last week of unusual names led a couple of people to e-mail me their personal unusual name stories. Here's one, from a very smart and successful former student of mine:

[Another former student] passed along your very entertaining piece for on the case law of various funny names. I thought you might like to know that my middle name is "c" -- as in the scientific abbreviation for the speed of light.

I probed further, and learned that it was indeed c, lower case, in italics, and with no period. What's more, this was the name the student's parents gave her, on her birth certificate. The reasons for the name:

I come from a family of scientists, my mother's maiden name begins with a "C," and I was born very very quickly. My father has this to add: "I don't think you have a middle name. You have a middle symbol. Something simple, ethereal, brief, fast, and different."

And my ex-student's experience with the name, which "over time has become [her preference] as well [as her parents']:

[I]t's a pain -- class rings, diplomas, passports, etc. are almost always printed incorrectly, despite my efforts to get it right. I omit it from my resume, etc. to eliminate the possible perception that I've made a typo spelling my own name. On the other hand, it's a great ice breaker.

My sense from our correspondence is that the person is quite happy with the name, the (modest) effect it has had on her life, and with her parents' decision to assign the name to her.

I should note, of course, that much of this has to do with this being (1) the person's middle name, which can usually easily be included or omitted as the person prefers, and (2) a middle name that's similar to normal middle initials, so that it can be turned into a "C." with no questions asked if some institution demands a middle initial. Being "Jane 5 Doe" or "c Doe" would be much harder, I think, than being "Jane c Doe."