Custody Case No Slam Dunk for Dr. J’s Son

By Greg Land

JUDGES IN GEORGIA and Pennsylvania are trying to sort out which state has jurisdiction in a dispute over the grandchildren of former basketball great Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

At issue are the 6-year-old and 3-year-old children of Philadelphia resident Kira Clifford and Julius Erving III, who calls himself “J.” One thorny question is whether a Fayette County judge’s order demanding that Clifford return to Georgia with the children is binding.

Attorney Randall M. Kessler, who is representing the younger Erving along with Mark J. Issa, said Clifford moved from Philadelphia to Fayetteville last August with the two kids. A month later Erving followed, relocating his music and entertainment management business to Atlanta.

Erving, 32, said in an interview that he had given Clifford, with whom he had lived until about three years ago, $50,000 toward a house and $3,400 a month “on time, every month.”

On Jan. 5, Clifford filed for determination of paternity in Fayette Superior Court, seeking a permanent order for child support and insurance for the children. That case is Kira Clifford v. Julius Erving III, No. 2007V-0017E.

In his response, Erving acknowledged paternity and agreed to allow the court to set the terms.

“Our lawyers were communicating trying to work out a settlement,” said Erving, “and we got to the point where we had basically shaken hands on an agreement and were ready to ink a deal.”

A hearing was scheduled for Feb. 23 but, according to Kessler, was cancelled the day before because both sides were in settlement negotiations and about to reach an agreement.

“The following weekend, she said there was a funeral in Philly she wanted to go to,” said Erving. “So I said fine. That was the 27th of February.”

On March 2, Clifford and the children left for Philadelphia and have never returned, despite a March 9 order by Fayette County Superior Court Chief Judge Paschal A. English Jr. demanding that Clifford bring the children back.

Once back in Pennsylvania, said Kessler, Clifford asked a Philadelphia court for an emergency ruling on jurisdiction, said Kessler. “A hearing was set for last week, and our client was never even served,” said Kessler.

Clifford’s local counsel, Atlanta sole practitioner Deanna H. Powell, said her client did not wish to discuss the case or allow her attorneys to do so.

Powell also expressed concern that the matter was being discussed publicly.

“I try my cases in court,” she said.

Shiel G. Edlin, who chairs the State Bar of Georgia’s family law section, said the case is “tremendously complex” due to the short time the children were in Georgia, and because of Clifford’s return to Pennsylvania after filing here.

“[The children] were here less than six months, so the court’s not going to see Georgia as home,” he said. “[But] you can’t just file suit and run; I’d be interested to hear her reasons for leaving … the court’s going to take a dim view of that.”

Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox is expected to issue an order in the matter, said Kessler, after she and English decide which court has jurisdiction. English did not respond to a call for comment by press time, and Fox is on vacation, said her clerk.

According to Kessler, both Georgia and Pennsylvania are signatories to the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), which lays out the process for reaching just such a decision.

“This type of case is exactly why Georgia adopted the UCCJEA,” said Kessler. “There’s been nothing filed in Georgia to ask the judge to move the case at all; I don’t think there’s even a legal basis for the court to consider transferring or dismissing the case, because in Georgia, the last document filed was the order for her to come back down here with the children. There’s been no request by [Clifford’s] Georgia lawyers for J. to go to Philadelphia; there’s not even been a request by the out-of-state lawyers for us to come up there …

“The law is very clear that this case should be heard in Georgia,” he said. “The UCCJEA gives ‘home state’ jurisdiction priority, and [Clifton] filed her motion for paternity and visitation here first, so Georgia obviously had jurisdiction first.”

By filing in Georgia, said Erving’s Philadelphia attorney, Saul Levit, “[Clifford] has already picked her jurisdiction.”