Estate Planning

Good News for Adoptive Parents

Today, the US Supreme Court issued a decision that should have adoptive parents sleeping easier: Alabama must respect a Georgia adoption decree, and cannot avoid it by saying that the Georgia Courts got Georgia law wrong.  

Alabama has well-known problems with the idea that it is part of a federal union with 49 other states, and as a result it must defer to the authority of the Federal Courts, and give full faith and credit to the judgments of courts in its sister states.  In 2003, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed from office for refusing to follow a federal-court order that he remove a 5,000 pound granite sculpture of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse.  Nine years later, the voters of Alabama returned Moore to office.  He now says that he denies the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, and that he does not consider it binding on the Alabama Supreme Court.  Never mind that the US Supreme Court rejected his reasoning 200 years ago.

Alabama’s latest act of defiance is an adoption case, E.L. v. V.L., in which Alabama had refused to recognize an adoption decree from Georgia.  Unsurprisingly, the case involved a same-sex couple, but the dispute had far-ranging implications for all adoptive parents.  The couple in this case had raised three children together before they parted ways, and to protect the non-genetic mother’s parental rights, they had set up a temporary residence in Georgia and obtained a second-parent adoption from a Georgia Court.  After they split, the non-genetic mother sought custody or visitation with her children, and the genetic mother cynically sought to void the adoption decree that she and her partner had gone to significant trouble and expense to obtain.  The Alabama courts sided with the genetic mother, and held that the Georgia adoption decree was void because the Georgia courts had misinterpreted Georgia law.

Say What??  Why does Alabama get to decide whether Georgia got Georgia law right??? Isn’t that up to the Georgia courts?  It sure is.  Today, the Supreme Court issued Alabama’s regularly-scheduled reminder that it is part of the United States.  The Court reversed the Alabama Supreme Court, and ordered it to re-do its case in a manner that recognizes the Georgia adoption as valid.  The full text of the Supreme Court’s opinion is here.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court did so in the most cutting way that it knows how: in a procedural device called a “GVR” or “grant-vacate-remand,” the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, heard it, decided it, and sent it back to the State Court for a do-over—all in a single step.  The GVR signals that the Court considered the case important enough to merit SCOTUS involvement, but so easy that it did not merit any briefing or argument and could simply be decided.

The upshot, for adoptive parents, is that they may rest on the knowledge that their adoption decrees are final and valid wherever they travel, regardless of whether the host state would have issued them or not.  By enforcing E.L. and V.L’s adoption decree, the Supreme Court has sent a sharp message to the State Courts that it will not tolerate procedural maneuvering to undo sister-state adoption decrees, which every state is constitutionally-required to honor.