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Giving credit where credit is due: SCOTUS forces Alabama to recognize same-sex adoption

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed a decision of the Alabama Supreme Court that failed to recognize the validity of a same-sex adoption ordered by a Georgia court on the ground that the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision ran afoul to the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution.

Photo by Lionel Bonaventure (Getty Images).

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed an Alabama Supreme Court decision on March 7th, which refused to recognize an adoption by an out-of-state same-sex partner.  The case, V.L. v. E.L., was reversed unanimously and without hearing oral arguments, on the ground that Alabama had failed to give full faith and credit to a Georgia court’s decision that initially allowed the woman to adopt.

A Georgia court issued a final adoption decree, which recognized both E.L. and V.L. as the children’s legal parents.  

The two women in the case, known only as V.L. and E.L., were a couple for 16 years and had three children – a 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old twin girls – conceived by assisted reproductive technology.  E.L. was the biological mother of all three children, with V.L. subsequently adopting the three children with E.L.’s consent.

Although E.L. provided explicit consent to the adoption, she did not surrender or terminate in any way her parental rights.  The adoption took place in Georgia, where both women lived at the time.  A Georgia court issued a final adoption decree, which recognized both E.L. and V.L. as the children’s legal parents.  Throughout E.L. and V.L.’s relationship, the two raised all three girls together as joint parents.

After the issuance of the Georgia adoption decree, E.L. and V.L. moved to Alabama with their three children.  Five years ago, however, the couple split while still living in Alabama.  After the split, E.L., the biological mother, denied V.L. access to the children.  When V.L. sought custody of the three children, Alabama lower courts initially ordered a decree of shared custody between E.L. and V.L. based on the Georgia adoption decree.  However, when the case reached the Alabama Supreme Court, the court overturned the lower courts’ decisions on the ground that Georgia erroneously agreed to the adoption by a same-sex couple.  Thus, the Alabama Supreme Court held that they were not required by the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution to respect the Georgia court’s judgment issuing the adoption.

After the Alabama Supreme Court’s reversal, V.L. appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

A “final judgment in one State, if rendered by a court with adjudicatory authority over the subject matter and persons governed by the judgment, qualifies for recognition throughout the land.” 

Article IV of the United States Constitution provides that “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.”  This Clause essentially requires each state to recognize and give full effect to valid judgments rendered by courts of other states.  According to the 1935 Supreme Court case Milwaukee County v. M.E. White Co., the Full Faith and Credit Clause operates “to alter the status of the several states as independent foreign sovereignties, each free to ignore obligations created under the laws or by the judicial proceedings of others, and to make them integral parts of a single nation.”

With respect to judgments from other states, the Supreme Court has been clear on how the Full Faith and Credit Clause is meant to apply.  In the 1998 case Baker v. General Motors Corp., the Supreme Court held that a “final judgment in one State, if rendered by a court with adjudicatory authority over the subject matter and persons governed by the judgment, qualifies for recognition throughout the land.”

Thus, a state may not disregard a judgment from another state simply because it disagrees with the reasoning underlying the judgment or deems it to be incorrect on the merits.  One exception to this principle, however, is that a state is not required to afford full faith and credit to a judgment rendered by a court in another state that did not have proper subject matter jurisdiction.

Alabama was required to give full faith and credit to the decisions of the Georgia court granting the adoption . . .

In the March 7 decision, the Supreme Court held that the well-established jurisprudence surrounding the Full Faith and Credit Clause resolved the controversy between the Alabama and Georgia courts.

The Supreme Court noted that under Georgia Law, “[t]he superior courts of the several counties shall have exclusive jurisdiction in all matters of adoption.”  This provision clearly gave the Georgia Superior Court subject matter jurisdiction to hear and decide V.L.’s adoption petition.  Because Georgia had proper subject matter jurisdiction to grant the adoption, the exception to the Full Faith and Credit Clause for courts lacking subject matter jurisdiction did not apply in this case.  Thus, the Supreme Court held, Alabama was required to give full faith and credit to the decisions of the Georgia court granting the adoption, irrelevant of the merits of the case.

According to the Supreme Court, where the Alabama Supreme Court erred was considering the merits of the adoption.  The Alabama Supreme Court relied on Ga. Code Ann. §19-8-5(a), which states, in pertinent part, 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.”  Because E.L. did not surrender her parental rights when the Georgia court ordered the adoption decree recognizing V.L. as one of the children’s legal parents, the Alabama Supreme Court held that the adoption as decided by the Georgia court was invalid.

The Alabama Supreme Court did attempt to justify their decision not to recognize the Georgia court’s adoption decree by concluding that Ga. Code Ann. §19-8-5(a) goes not to the merits of the case, but to the Georgia court’s subject matter jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court, however, was unconvinced.  As the Court noted, 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.”  Thus, Ga. Code Ann. §19-8-5(a) does not speak to whether a court has the jurisdiction to decide a class of cases.  Rather, the Supreme Court said, it “only provides a rule of decision to apply in determining if a particular adoption should be allowed.”

Holding that the Alabama Supreme Court did not give full faith and credit to the judgment of the Georgia court, and subject matter jurisdiction was not in question, the Supreme Court reversed the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision.

[The] U.S. Supreme Court has done what’s right for my family”. . .  

According to NPR, after the Supreme Court’s decision was released, V.L., 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.”

Although V.L. v. E.L. was decided on Full Faith and Credit Clause grounds, it still marks a reluctant move toward the (arguably forced) acceptance of gay rights and same-sex marriage in Alabama.  Less than a year ago, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore prohibited probate judges in Alabama from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the United States Supreme Court ruling that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.  However, on March 4, 2016, just three days before V.L. v. E.L. was decided the Alabama Supreme Court ordered all officials who issue marriage licenses to provide the service for same-sex couples.

Rachel Goodling, Senior Staff Writer
About Rachel Goodling, Senior Staff Writer (17 Articles)
Rachel Goodling is a 2016 graduate and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Cary, North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2012 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a Political Science minor. Following her first year of law school, Rachel worked at the NC Department of Justice, Medicaid Investigations Division as the criminal intern. Following her second year of law school, Rachel interned at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services handling post-conviction appeals as well as civil claims made by inmates across North Carolina. Rachel was also on Campbell's National moot court team.
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