Dec. 7--AUSTIN -- David and Suzanne Saperstein aren't the first couple to take a fight about alimony to the Texas Supreme Court.But they definitely are one of the richest. The couple known for lavish lifestyles and charitable donations is involved in a billion-dollar divorce that hit the high court Wednesday with appropriately high-powered legal talent.Tom Phillips, an ex-chief justice of the Supreme Court, made his first appearance before his former colleagues, arguing that Suzanne's spousal maintenance should be determined by a court in California, where she lives. The alimony laws there are considerably more liberal than in Texas, which has a three-year limit. David's case for having alimony determined in his home state of Texas was presented by Lynne Liberato, a former president of the State Bar of Texas and seasoned practitioner before the high court.David, 66, became a billionaire building a company that reported on traffic snarls. For the past three years, he has been Mayor Bill White's $1-a-year traffic czar, setting up the Safe Clear program and consulting on other mobility issues.Suzanne, 45, loves haute couture and lives in Los Angeles, where the couple's 45,000-square-foot French-style chateau was the subject of a seven-page spread in the April 2002 issue of Vanity Fair.In her legal brief, Suzanne said she was surprised in July 2005 when David lured her out of the family's Gulfstream jet when it landed in Houston for a stopover on the way to Europe. He said he wanted to talk about some serious issues regarding the children; once outside the plane he had her served with divorce papers.Days later she filed her own petition for divorce in California, where she might expect a higher and longer-lasting alimony judgment.One child lives in L.A.The couple have been married for almost 20 years and have three children. The two oldest, 19 and 17, live in Texas, but the youngest, 16-year-old Stefanie, lives with her mother in Los Angeles. (Her 2003 bat mitzvah, held at the family's horse ranch in Simi Valley, featured a big-top circus where Stefanie swung with professional trapeze artists and circled the ring nestled in an elephant's trunk.)Sometime in the fall of 2005, state District Judge Lisa Millard, a Harris County family court judge, held a brief telephone conference with a judge in California. The judges agreed to split the family support issues between them, with Texas taking spousal support and California taking child support and custody.Suzanne appealed Millard's spousal maintenance order to Houston's 14th Court of Appeals, which denied her appeal. She then petitioned the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.Meanwhile, she appealed the California judge's decision to cede jurisdiction, and a California appeals court sided with her in January.Competing court ordersConsequently, there are competing orders for temporary spousal maintenance, Phillips said. Millard granted $33,000 a month and the California court ordered a more generous $60,000 monthly payment.The $29,500 monthly child support is not disputed.There is no timetable for when the court might rule.A uniform statute enacted by all states in the mid-1990s at the insistence of Congress was supposed to prevent such interstate disputes. It places jurisdiction in the state where the divorce was first filed unless another state is the home state of the child.Phillips argued that California court should have jurisdiction over spousal support just as it has over child support. But Liberato said the issues should be decided in Texas where a court will divide the couple's property early next year."You all will be back here on property," predicted Justice Scott Brister.Cooperation encouragedAlthough the letter of the law appears to be on Suzanne's side, Liberato, who is with the Haynes and Boone law firm in Houston, cited an official comment by family law specialists who drafted the uniform statute. The comment, which she said is considered part of the law, encourages courts in competing states to cooperate and even defer to the other, depending on circumstances.Referring to the history of the dispute, Liberato told the Supreme Court, "This is a weird duck."Phillips, who served as chief justice for 16 years before leaving in 2004, now is with Houston's Baker Botts. He appeared at ease arguing before the court, but noted afterward that the 20 minutes he was given to present his case went by much faster than when he was on the other side of the bench.He said that because the law is the same in every state, the Texas Supreme Court's decision will be "highly influential when and if this problem arises in other states."
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