March 07, 2016

Supreme Court Decides V.L. v. E.L.

On March 7, 2016, the Supreme Court decided V.L. v. E.L., No. 15-648, holding that the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution requires Alabama courts to grant full faith and credit to an adoption decree issued in Georgia to a second parent in a same-sex relationship with the children’s biological mother. Because the Georgia court had subject matter jurisdiction over the matter, the Alabama courts had no basis in refusing to grant full faith and credit.

E.L. is the biological mother of three children that V.L. and E.L. raised together. V.L. formally adopted the children in Georgia, with E.L. consenting to V.L.’s adoption of the children as a second parent. V.L. and E.L.’s relationship ended while both were living in Alabama, and V.L. filed a petition to register the Georgia adoption decree and grant her custody or visitation rights. The Alabama family court granted V.L. visitation rights, but the Alabama Court of Appeals remanded for an evidentiary hearing. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Georgia court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction under Georgia law to issue the adoption decree in the first instance, and that Alabama courts therefore were not required to accord full faith and credit to the Georgia adoption decree.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Full Faith and Credit Clause requires a state court to enforce a judgment by a court in another state if the court issuing the judgment had subject matter jurisdiction over the action, and that the Georgia court here had such subject matter jurisdiction. Although a state is not required to afford full faith and credit to a judgment rendered by a court that lacks subject matter jurisdiction, that jurisdictional inquiry is a “limited one.” “A State may not disregard the judgment of a sister State because it disagrees with the reasoning underlying the judgment or deems it to be wrong on the merits.” Here, a Georgia statute expressly gave the Georgia Superior Court exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction to hear and decide the adoption petition. The Alabama Supreme Court had relied on a different statute to conclude that V.L. was not allowed to adopt the children while E.L. kept her existing parental rights, and found that the statute was jurisdictional. The Supreme Court explained that the statute on which the Alabama Supreme Court relied provided only a rule of decision and was not jurisdictional. “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. It follows that the Alabama Supreme Court erred in refusing to grant that judgment full faith and credit.”

The Court issued its decision per curiam.

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