District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz is shown in a 2015 file photo. Credit: Seth Koenig / BDN

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday overturned a lower court judge’s decision in a case where a father sought to have more say in whether his children are vaccinated.

In the decision, the judicial court told a York County District Court judge to outline his reasons for granting a mother sole decision-making power over whether her children will be vaccinated against childhood diseases or not.

The father in April 2020 sought to modify the couple’s divorce agreement so that he had more say in whether the couple’s children would be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and polio, the decision said.

The mother opposed having the children inoculated claiming the vaccinations were unnecessary and unsafe but offered no proof of her belief, the opinion said.

The justices agreed with the scientific evidence outlined by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and others that says vaccines are safe and an important way to control the spread of childhood diseases, but stopped short of ordering the mother to vaccinate the children.

The 20-page ruling issued Tuesday chastised Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz for failing to explain why he gave final decision-making authority on all educational and medical issues to the mother.        

“Indeed, [Moskowitz’s decision] completely fails to address the parties’ disputes about vaccination and [the father’s] allegations that [the mother] had failed to bring the children to a pediatrician or dentist,” Justice Catherine Connors wrote for the court. “In light of [the father’s] motion, [Moscowitz’s] failure to adequately explain why [he] chose to curtail [the father’s] rights and expand [the mother’s] was error.”

The unanimous ruling from the state’s high court also said the Moskowitz’s should have noted in his ruling that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the scientific community recommends vaccination for childhood diseases.

It was unclear Tuesday what impact the ruling might have on parental disagreements over whether children should be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The decision does put judges who handle divorce cases on notice that they must outline their reasoning in decisions concerning parental rights and responsibilities.

If the mother continues to object to the children being vaccinated, she must present evidence that the reliability and safety of vaccines is “not accepted to be true within the scientific community,” the court ruled.

The couple, whose children were born in 2014 and 2017, were divorced in 2018. A different judge ordered shared parental rights and responsibilities for the children with their primary residence with their mother. The divorce settlement called for the father to have contact with the children several days a week.

The father sought to modify the custody agreement as the pandemic shut down all but emergency matters in the state’s court system. Moskowitz held a hearing in April 2021 on the father’s motion. The father appealed that decision to the state’s high court, which accepted written arguments last month before issuing Tuesday’s ruling.

Moskowitz came under fire in 2015 when he issued a controversial, illegal gag order on the media during a criminal proceeding, only to rescind it under fire two days later and issue an apology for it.

He was first appointed to the District Court bench in January 2008 by Gov. John Baldacci after work as a prosecutor with the York County District Attorney’s office. Gov. Paul LePage renominated Moskowitz to the bench a few months after his illegal gag order.

Moskowitz was confirmed for the reappointment by the Maine Senate. His current term expires next May.