April 01, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Alabama Must Grant Full Faith and Credit to Georgia Decree Allowing Adoption of Mother’s Biological Children by Same-Sex Partner

Eva J. Klain

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

V. L. v. E. L., 2016 WL 854160 (S. Ct.).

In case addressing validity of adoption decree allowing mother’s same-sex partner to adopt mother’s biological children, the United States Supreme Court found that Georgia court had subject-matter jurisdiction to hear and decide the adoption petition, triggering Alabama courts’ full faith and credit obligation.

Biological mother’s former same-sex partner V.L. filed a petition seeking visitation with biological mother’s children, whom former partner had adopted in Georgia. The Supreme Court of Alabama found the Georgia court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter its adoption decree, which was therefore unenforceable under the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Under the Clause, a state may not disregard the judgment of a sister state because it disagrees with the reasoning underlying the judgment or considers it wrong on the merits. The Clause precludes any inquiry into the merits of the case, the logic or consistency of the decision, or the validity of the legal principles on which the judgment is based. 

However, a state is not required to afford full faith and credit to a judgment if the rendering court did not have jurisdiction over the subject matter or the relevant parties. The court may make a limited inquiry into the jurisdictional basis of the other court’s decree; however, if the judgment on its face appears to be from a court of general jurisdiction, such jurisdiction over the cause and the parties is presumed unless disproved by extrinsic evidence or by the record itself. 

In this case, the Georgia superior court had subject-matter jurisdiction to hear and decide the adoption petition, and the Alabama courts therefore had a full faith and credit obligation to honor the decree. Georgia statutes provide for the state’s superior courts to have exclusive jurisdiction in all matters of adoption, and there was nothing to rebut the resulting presumption that the superior court had jurisdiction. 

The Georgia statute permitting third-party adoption of a child who has a living parent or guardian only if each such living parent or guardian voluntarily surrenders his or her rights to such child in writing was not jurisdictional, and no state court had interpreted it as jurisdictional. When deciding whether certain words in a statute are directed to jurisdiction or to merits, the Court noted that courts should be cautious in interpreting ambiguous words in a way that leaves judgments open to dispute. 

Under Georgia law, the superior courts have exclusive jurisdiction in all matters of adoption. That statutory provision on its face gave the Georgia court subject-matter jurisdiction to hear and decide the adoption petition, which it resolved 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 adoption matters and the Georgia court thus had the necessary adjudicatory authority to entitle its judgment to full faith and credit.

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. The Alabama Supreme Court therefore erred in refusing to grant that judgment full faith and credit.