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Alabama Gets Same-Sex Parental Rights Very Wrong

The Court's first major case addressing gay and lesbian rights since last summer's Obergefell decision appears to have been an easy one. Today, the Supreme Court overturned an Alabama ruling that denied parental rights to a lesbian woman who had adopted her children with her partner.

It was a unanimous per curium decision, made without full briefing or oral arguments. That's a strong sign that the Court believed Alabama's ruling was almost inarguably wrong. Let's see why.

An Adoption in Georgia Denied in Alabama

The case involved an interstate custody dispute between two mothers, known as V.L. and E.L. The two were together from 1995 to 2011 and, in the early 2000s, gave birth to three children. E.L. carried the babies and V.L. adopted them as a second parent.

That adoption took place in Georgia. In 2011, however, the couple had moved west to Alabama and their relationship had headed south. They separated and soon V.L. went to court, alleging that E.L. had denied her access to the children. She asked the Alabama court to register her adoption and grant her visitation or custody.

The case wound its way up the Alabama courts, until eventually the Alabama Supreme Court refused to give effect to Georgia adoption, ruling that the Georgia court did not have subject matter jurisdiction since Georgia did not actually permit V.L.'s second parent adoption, the adoption decree notwithstanding.

No Faith, No Credit

The Alabama Supreme Court's ruling raised eyebrows, as well as claims that it violated the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court easily agreed.

The Court began by noting that the Full Faith and Credit Clause 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 wrong on the merits." While courts can investigate whether a sister state's court had jurisdiction, that is a limited inquiry, one in which jurisdiction is resumed unless refuted by extrinsic or record evidence.

"Those principles," the Court wrote, "resolve this case." Georgia law grants superior courts jurisdiction over "all matters of adoption." That provision alone was enough to give the Georgia court subject matter jurisdiction, the Supreme Court ruled. The Court went on to reject Alabama's interpretation of Georgia's adoption statute as a jurisdictional issue. Alabama had determined that there was no subject matter jurisdiction for E.L.'s adoption based on the fact that Georgia law was to be "strictly construed."

A Sign of Things to Come -- Sort Of

The case does not break any ground in same-sex parenting law or interpretation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

But it may foreshadow future court battles as the increase gay marriages gives way to same-sex adoption and parenting and, in time, increased same-sex custody disputes. Few of those cases, however, are likely to turn on the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

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