This undated photo provided by Jessica Sardina shows Honey and herself in Bangor. A custody battle in Maine Supreme Judicial Court focuses on the dog. Maine law allows a judge to order married couples to share custody of animals, but that standard doesn't apply to unmarried couples splitting up. Jessica Sardina is challenging a ruling that her former boyfriend is Honey's sole owner because his signature appeared on adoption papers. Credit: Samantha Sardina via AP

If the questions justices on Maine’s highest court asked Tuesday are any indication of how they might rule, they are not likely to reverse a lower court’s decision on who owns Honey or with whom the dog should be able to spend time.

Honey, a 4-year-old female lab/shepherd mix, is at the center of a dispute between Jessica Sardina, 25, of Bangor and her ex-boyfriend, Kelvin Liriano, 25, of Old Town.

She’s appealed a ruling issued last year by Bangor District Court Judge Patrick Larson to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Larson found that the dog’s sole owner is Liriano because his is the only signature on the adoption papers even though Sardina cared for the dog when the couple lived together in Bangor for about three years.

“The theme of this case is that companion animals are different from ordinary chattel,” Sardina’s attorney, Eugene Sullivan of Bangor, argued at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta.

This is the first time Maine’s high court has considered the issue.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley pointed out that the justices heard arguments Tuesday in separate appeals that involved a manslaughter conviction in a decades-old infant manslaughter case and a serious child abuse case.

“We understand why your heartstrings have brought you here, but is this really what we want judges in this state to spend their time on?” she asked.

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Sardina

Sullivan answered, “Yes,” and asked that the justices send the case back to District Court and instruct the judge to hold a hearing to determine who would best care for Honey, Sardina or Liriano.

“The court did not realize the broad discretion it had,” the attorney said. “I’m asking you to tell it that.”

Liriano’s attorney, Jonathan Hunter of Bangor, said that during the time Sardina and his client lived together, both cared for Honey.

“Ms. Sardina kicked Mr. Liriano out and he had to bring this action to get his property and Honey back,” Hunter said, referring to Liriano’s court filing.

He told the justices that Larson made the right decision because Liriano is the sole owner of the dog and under Maine law, animals are property.

Justice Ellen Gorman told Sullivan that he should look to the Legislature, not the courts, for a new law that would allow unmarried couples joint access to companion animals when they split up.

Liriano and Sardina met on Tinder in July 2014 but did not start dating until the following year, she testified at the hearing before Larson on Sept. 17, 2018, at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.

In finding for Liriano, the judge said that Maine law gave him no other option but to rule in his favor.

There is no timetable under which the justices must issue a decision.