March 07, 2016

Jenner & Block won a significant victory in the United States Supreme Court for an Alabama woman seeking to vindicate her parental rights over three children she adopted while in a relationship with the children’s biological mother.  On March 7, 2016, the Court held that the adoption of her children must be honored nationwide, restoring her legal bond with her children and ensuring that other same-sex couples would not be stripped of their parental rights.

V.L. and E.L. were in a committed relationship for nearly 17 years, during which E.L. gave birth first to one child, now 13 years old, and later to twins, now 11 years old.  V.L. raised them from birth.  In 2007, V.L. and E.L. decided together to protect V.L.’s rights as the non-biological parent by having V.L. adopt the children, with E.L. retaining her rights as the children’s biological mother.  With E.L.’s consent, a Georgia court granted V.L.’s petition for adoption, legally recognizing her as the children’s second parent.

In 2011, while living in Alabama, the parties broke up.  E.L. sought to prevent V.L. from seeing the children, and V.L. filed a petition in an Alabama family court seeking joint custody or visitation.  She argued that because she had a Georgia judgment declaring her the children’s adoptive parent, she was entitled to parental rights.  The Alabama family court agreed, and the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals affirmed.  But the Alabama Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Georgia adoption court had not properly applied Georgia law and therefore lacked jurisdiction.  The Alabama Supreme Court held that under Georgia law, an unmarried person could not adopt her partner’s biological child unless her partner’s parental rights were terminated—which meant that only one member of the couple could be the children’s parent, but not both.  The court further held that the Georgia court’s failure to strip E.L. of her parental rights deprived it of jurisdiction, and so Alabama courts were not required to honor the adoption under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution.

The firm’s team, led by Partner Adam G. Unikowsky, filed a petition for certiorari, as well as an emergency application for a stay, asking that V.L. be allowed to see her children while the petition for certiorari was pending.  The Court granted the stay in December 2015, and on March 7, issued a unanimous summary reversal of the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision.  The Court held that under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, the Alabama Supreme Court was required to honor V.L.’s Georgia adoption, even if it disagreed with it.  The decision concluded that the Georgia family court clearly had jurisdiction over adoption cases as a whole, and that should have been the end of the matter under the Full Faith and Credit Clause; the Alabama Supreme Court was not permitted to look behind the Georgia court’s application of Georgia law.  Mr. Unikowsky was assisted by Partner Paul M. Smith, Law Clerk Adrienne Benson, Senior Paralegal Cheryl L. Olson and Legal Secretary Carolyn J. Huggins.  

The Court’s decision not only restores V.L.’s parental rights, but also protects the parental rights of many other adoptive families in Alabama.  Because same-sex marriage was illegal in most states until very recently, same-sex couples with children would frequently protect their parental rights through “second parent adoptions” exactly like V.L.’s adoption.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of same-sex couples protected their parental rights in this way.  This ruling promises legal stability for adoptive families even when they cross state lines.

News of the Supreme Court’s decision was covered by the media including stories in The New York Times, National Law Journal, Birmingham NewsWashington Blade and Law360.