On March 7, 2016, the United States Supreme Court quietly granted thousands of gay and lesbian parents across the country piece of mind. It ruled that no matter where a second-parent gay adoption occurred, a family court must enforce it when a couple separates. This decision provides certainty to a person’s parental rights and closes the door to another attack on gay rights.
Imagine doing everything you could to be recognized as the legal parents of your children, just to have your state’s supreme court tell you none of it meant anything. That’s what happened to a woman identified as V.L. in Alabama last year.
Getting a Second-Parent Gay Adoption
V.L. and her partner E.L. had used assisted reproductive therapy to have three children together: a daughter in 2002 and twins in 2004 (one boy and one girl). They then went through the complicated and expensive process of obtaining a second-parent adoption from the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia.
To meet Georgia’s requirements, the parties rented a home in Alpharetta, Georgia, and both appeared at court. E.L. expressly consented to V.L. adopting their 3 children as a second parent, while not terminating her own rights. The Georgia court determined the couple had done everything they were required to do under Georgia law, and granted the second-parent adoption.
Alabama Custody & Parenting Time Awards
In 2011, V.L. and E.L. separated without ever being able to marry. V.L. filed a petition for parenting time in Jefferson County, Alabama. She told the court E.L. was interfering with her parental rights by denying her access to her children. The local Alabama court honored the Georgia adoption and awarded V.L. joint legal custody and specific parenting time.
But the Alabama Supreme Court overturned that decision. It ruled, not just that Georgia should not have granted a same-sex second-parent adoption, but that it didn’t have the jurisdictional authority to do so. By framing its decision in that way, it justified ignoring the Georgia decision and cutting V.L. off from her children.
U.S. Supreme Court Authorizes Second-Parent Gay Adoption
The United States Supreme Court took up the appeal and struck down Alabama’s effort to erect barriers between a lesbian woman and her children. The court ruled that the Constitution’s “Full Faith and Credit” clause requires each state to recognize the adoption orders of every other state.
The Court acknowledged that Full Faith and Credit does not require enforcement of an order entered without subject matter jurisdiction (the ability to hear a case). But it said that, in refusing to enforce an order, a court can only look at the face of the law, not the merits of the case.
“The [Georgia] 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.'”
Alabama was therefore required to enforce that adoption order, and grant custody and parenting time according to its own law.
Quietly Raising a Shield for Gay Rights
The Court issued its opinion without any of the extensive oral arguments, pageantry, or fanfare that it had used the year before in granting Marriage Equality. There were no mountains of amicus briefs or hours of oral arguments. In fact, the court issued a unanimous summary decisions, without ever hearing the attorneys.
But the quietness of the decision doesn’t make it any less influential. By ruling that courts must honor other states’ gay adoptions, it gave LGBT couples in conservative states a shield with which to protect their families. As the U.S.A. Today reported:
Lawyers for V.L., including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the case has broad implications for any gay or lesbian adoptive parents who travel or move to Alabama.
“The Supreme Court’s reversal of Alabama’s unprecedented decision to void an adoption from another state is a victory not only for our client but for thousands of adopted families,” Cathy Sakimura, the center’s family law director, said. “No adoptive parent or child should have to face the uncertainty and loss of being separated years after their adoption just because another state’s court disagrees with the law that was applied in their adoption.”
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family lawyer at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC. She advises LGBT couples about the quickly changing legal landscape of marriage equality, and defends their rights in court. If your family is at risk of falling apart, contact Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, today for a free consultation.