In a landmark ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals has held that a parent cannot automatically be barred from winning custody of children in a divorce case simply because that parent may have committed adultery.

The ruling explicitly repudiates the judicial view that a parent's adultery is evidence on its face that the parent is an unfit guardian, and brings the state more into conformity with a majority of states.

"We now explicitly hold what (previous state court decisions) implicitly recognized," the court's unanimous decree stated, "that whereas the fact of adultery may be a relevant consideration in child custody awards, no presumption of unfitness on the part of the adulterous parent arises from it; rather it should be weighed, along with all other pertinent factors, only insofar as it affects the child's welfare."

The court's ruling came Tuesday when it upheld the decision of a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge to grant a woman custody of one of her three children even though she had been divorced on the grounds of adultery.

In so ruling, the state's highest tribunal overturned a Court of Special Appeals ruling that had overturned the Circuit Court and awarded custody of the child to the father, who already held custody of the couple's other two children.

In its decision the Court of Special Appeals had held that, although the Circuit Court judge had committed no techinal or procedural errors, the Court of Special Appeals could still reverse the judge's decision.

The Court of Appeals, however, "categorically reject(ed)" that view, barring any technical errors or a flagrantly unjust decision on the part of the lower court.

The Court of Appeals held that "it is within the sound discretion of (the Circuit Court judge) to award custody according to the exigencies of each case . . . A reviewing court may interfere with such a determination only on a clear showing of abuse of that discretion.

The custody ruling stemmed from the divorce of an Ednor, Md., couple. According to court documents in case, the husband filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery.

Despite the court's finding that adultery had been committed, the judge awarded the mother custody of her daughter. The judge said that during the two years the child had been living with her apart from the rest of the family, the mother had proved herself a fit parent and the child had not suffered any physical or social harm.