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United States Supreme Court finds order granting adopting lesbian mother visitation is entitled to full faith and credit

On March 7, 2016, in the case of V. L. v. E. L., ET AL., the United States Supreme Court, in an unsigned Per Curiam opinion, ordered the Alabama Supreme Court to give full faith and credit to a Georgia adoption decree that allowed a lesbian mother to adopt her then-partner’s three biological children. The couple and their children subsequently moved to Alabama and later separated. Adopting mother (V.L.) petitioned the Alabama courts to enforce the adoption order and to grant her visitation. The Alabama lower court granted her visitation and biological mother (E.L.) appealed.

On appeal E.L. argued that the Georgia court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to allow the adoptions. After the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals ordered a remand for an evidentiary hearing on V.L.’s visitation request, the Alabama Supreme Court took certiorari and reversed the lower court. It held that the Georgia court had no subject-matter jurisdiction under Georgia law to enter a judgment allowing V. L. to adopt the children while still recognizing E. L.’s parental rights. As a consequence, the Alabama Supreme Court held Alabama courts were not required to accord full faith and credit to the Georgia judgment. V.L. sought certiorari with the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari, dispensed with further briefing, reversed the Alabama Supreme Court and remanded the matter for further proceedings (likely the evidentiary hearing the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals decision required). In reversing the Alabama Supreme Court the Supreme Court held:

Under Georgia law, as relevant here, “[t]he superior courts of the several counties shall have exclusive jurisdiction in all matters of adoption.” Ga. Code Ann. §19–8–2(a) (2015). That provision on its face gave the Georgia Superior Court subject matter jurisdiction to hear and decide the adoption petition at issue here. The Superior Court resolved that matter by entering a final judgment that made V. L. the legal adoptive parent of the children. Whatever the merits of that judgment, it was within the statutory grant of jurisdiction over “all matters of adoption.” Ibid. The Georgia court thus had the “adjudicatory authority over the subject matter” required to entitle its judgment to full faith and credit.

In reaching the conclusion that Georgia lacked subject matter jurisdiction to issue the adoption decree, the Alabama Supreme Court relied on Ga. Code Ann. §19–8–5(a). Per the Supreme Court opinion:

That statute states (as relevant here) that “a child who has any living parent or guardian may be adopted by a third party . . . only if each such living parent and each such guardian has voluntarily and in writing surrendered all of his or her rights to such child.” The Alabama Supreme Court concluded that this provision prohibited the Georgia Superior Court from allowing V. L. to adopt the children while also allowing E. L. to keep her existing parental rights. It further concluded that this provision went not to the merits but to the Georgia court’s subject-matter jurisdiction. In reaching that crucial second conclusion, the Alabama Supreme Court seems to have relied solely on the fact that the right to adoption under Georgia law is purely statutory, and “‘[t]he requirements of Georgia’s adoptions statutes are mandatory and must be strictly construed in favor of the natural parents.’” (quoting In re Marks, 300 Ga. App. 239, 243, 684 S. E. 2d 364, 367 (2009)).

In rejecting the Alabama Supreme Court’s analysis the United States Supreme Court held:

Where a judgment indicates on its face that it was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, such jurisdiction is to be presumed unless disproved. There is nothing here to rebut that presumption. The Georgia statute on which the Alabama Supreme Court relied, Ga. Code Ann. §19–8–5(a), does not speak in jurisdictional terms; for instance, it does not say that a Georgia court “shall have jurisdiction to enter an adoption decree” only if each existing parent or guardian has surrendered his or her parental rights. Neither the Georgia Supreme Court nor any Georgia appellate court, moreover, has construed §19–8–5(a) as jurisdictional. That construction would also be difficult to reconcile with Georgia law. Georgia recognizes that in general, subject-matter jurisdiction addresses whether a court has jurisdiction to decide a particular class of cases, not whether a court should grant relief in any given case. Unlike §19–8–2(a), which expressly gives Georgia superior courts “exclusive jurisdiction in all matters of adoption,” §19–8–5(a) does not speak to whether a court has the power to decide a general class of cases. It only provides a rule of decision to apply in determining if a particular adoption should be allowed.

Section 19–8–5(a) does not become jurisdictional just because it is mandatory and must be strictly construed. This Court has long rejected the notion that all mandatory prescriptions, however emphatic, are properly typed jurisdictional. Indeed, the Alabama Supreme Court’s reasoning would give jurisdictional status to every requirement of the Georgia adoption statutes, since Georgia law indicates those requirements are all mandatory and must be strictly construed. That result would comport neither with Georgia law nor with common sense.

As Justice Holmes observed more than a century ago, it sometimes may be difficult to decide whether certain words in a statute are directed to jurisdiction or to merits. In such cases, especially where the Full Faith and Credit Clause is concerned, a court must be slow to read ambiguous words, as meaning to leave the judgment open to dispute, or as intended to do more than fix the rule by which the court should decide. That time-honored rule controls here. The Georgia judgment appears on its face to have been issued by a court with jurisdiction, and there is no established Georgia law to the contrary. It follows that the Alabama Supreme Court erred in refusing to grant that judgment full faith and credit.

Citations omitted.

From the New York Times article that alerted me to this opinion, one gets the sense that the Alabama Supreme Court simply disapproved of a lesbian being allowed to adopt her partner’s child and was looking for a basis to upend the adoption. Now that gay marriage is authorized nationwide, we should be seeing many fewer non-spouse gay or lesbian partner adoptions. However the United States Supreme Court opinion is likely to prevent full faith and credit challenges to other state’s gay or lesbian couple adoptions.

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  • Tony O’Neill

    Mr. Chief Justice Roy Moore from Alabama will probably try to find another loophole in God’s law to get around this one.

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