Same-Sex Adoption Upheld By U.S. Supreme Court | KERA News

Same-Sex Adoption Upheld By U.S. Supreme Court

Mar 7, 2016
Originally published on March 9, 2016 4:38 am

The U.S. Supreme Court, without hearing oral argument, has unanimously reversed an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that denied parental rights to a lesbian adoptive mother who had split with her partner. The decision is a direct repudiation of an Alabama Supreme Court decision that refused to recognize a Georgia adoption.

The two women in the case were together for 16 years, and they had three children conceived by assisted reproductive technology — an older daughter, now 13, and boy and girl twins, now 11. The actual names of the parents have not been revealed. They are identified in court documents by the initials V.L. and E.L.

E.L. was the biological mother and V.L. subsequently adopted the children with her partner's explicit consent. The adoption was in Georgia, where both women appeared at a court hearing, and the final adoption decree recognized both as the children's legal parents.

When the parents, now living in Alabama, split five years ago, however, the biological mother denied her former partner access to the children. The Alabama courts initially ordered a decree of shared custody, based on the Georgia adoption, but the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the lower court orders. The state Supreme Court said the Georgia courts had wrongly agreed to the adoption.

The adoptive mother appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Monday the justices unanimously overruled the Alabama Supreme Court in a short, unsigned opinion.

The high court said that the Alabama court had misread Georgia law and violated the principles of the "full faith and credit clause" of the Constitution.

That clause provides that each state shall give "full faith and credit" to the "judicial proceedings of every other state." And as the U.S. Supreme Court observed, this means that "a State may not disregard the judgment of a sister State because it disagrees with the reasoning underlying the judgment or deems it to be wrong on the merits." Indeed, the justices said that, to the contrary, as long a "sister state" court, here the Georgia court, has jurisdiction to rule, as the superior court did on a petition for adoption, courts in other states have virtually no license to reach a different conclusion.

In addition, the justices said that the Alabama court incorrectly interpreted Georgia law. "The result would comport neither with Georgia law nor with common sense," the court said, adding that the Georgia court got it right in granting the adoption.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's decision was released on Monday, the adoptive parent issued a statement saying: "I have been my children's mother in every way for their whole lives. ... [When] the Alabama Court said my adoption was invalid and I wasn't their mother, I didn't think I could go on. The U.S. Supreme Court has done what's right for my family."

The legal contretemps in the Alabama case is the latest twist in a saga involving the Alabama Supreme Court and the whole issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage. It is a tug of war that the Alabama Supreme Court is losing.

Last year Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore prohibited probate judges in Alabama from granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. But on Friday, the Alabama Supreme Court admitted defeat and ordered all officials who issue marriage licenses to extend that service to same-sex couples.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Supreme Court has ruled that an adoptive mother cannot be denied her visitation rights after her same-sex relationship has ended. The court unanimously reversed a ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court. Joining us here in the studio to discuss the case is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Hey, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Set up the facts in this case for us to start.

TOTENBERG: Well, the two women here were together for 16 years, and they had three children conceived by reproductive technology - an older daughter, now 13, and boy and girl twins, now 11. We don't know the actual names of the parents. They're identified in court documents only by the initials V.L. and E.L. E.L. was the biological mother, and V.L. subsequently adopted the children with their partner's explicit consent. The adoption was in Georgia, where both women appeared at a court hearing and were declared the children's legal parents. Five years ago, however, the parents, now living in Alabama, split and the biological mother denied her former partner access to the children. The Alabama courts initially ordered a degree of shared custody based on the Georgia adoption, but the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the lower court orders, saying that the Georgia court had misread its own state law. The adoptive mother then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and today, the justices sided with her and there was no dissent.

SHAPIRO: So as a legal matter, it seems a little bit extraordinary that the Alabama Supreme Court would decide what George law was.

TOTENBERG: You got it. That's pretty much what the Supreme Court said (laughter). The justices, to put this in legalese - but constitutional legalese - they pointed to the Constitution and said that it provides that each state shall give full faith and credit to the judicial proceedings of every other state. As the justices put it, that means that a state may not disregard the judgment of a sister state because it disagrees with the reasoning underlying that judgment. Indeed the justices said that to the contrary, as long as the Georgia court had jurisdiction to grant the adoption, the Alabama court had virtually no license to reach a different conclusion.

SHAPIRO: Now obviously the mothers in this case were not giving interviews if we don't even know their names beyond their initials. Were there any statements or anything like that from them today?

TOTENBERG: Yes. V.L., the adoptive parent, issued a statement saying, I've been my children's mother in every way for their whole lives. When the Alabama court said my adoption was invalid and I wasn't their mother, I didn't think I could go on. The U.S. Supreme Court has done what's right for my family.

SHAPIRO: Is this part of a larger saga involving the Alabama Supreme Court and the whole broader issue of gay rights, same-sex marriage and so on?

TOTENBERG: Yes. It's a tug-of-war the Alabama Supreme Court is losing. There's this action today, and you may recall that last year, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered the probate judges in Alabama not to grant marriage licenses to gay couples after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. But on Friday, the Alabama Supreme Court basically admitted defeat and ordered all officials who issue marriage licenses to extend that service to same-sex couples. So - so far, score is federal courts, two, Alabama Supreme Court, zero.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks as always, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.