U.S. Supreme Court to Alabama: Full Faith and Credit Must Be Given to Out-of-State Adoption

In a unanimous, per curiam opinion in V.L. v. E.L., the U.S. Supreme Court has reversed the Supreme Court of Alabama’s refusal to enforce a Georgia adoption order.  V.L. and E.L., two women, were involved in a 25-year relationship. E.L. gave birth to three children over the course of several years. The couple rented a house in Georgia and formalized the relationship between the children by V.L. petitioning for an order of adoption.  A Georgia court entered a judgment of adoption and recognized that V.L. and E.L. were the legal parents of the children.

After V.L. and E.L. ended their relationship in 2011, V.L. sued in Alabama arguing that E.L. had denied her access to the children.  The Supreme Court of Alabama however, refused to recognize the Georgia judgment as valid, reasoning that Georgia law precluded Georgia’s courts from recognizing two legal parents after one parent consented to the adoption.  The case was decided in the context of a broader political controversy brewing over Alabama state courts’ refusal to grant marriage certificates to same-sex couples in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Obergefell v. Hodges

After staying the Alabama Supreme Court’s judgment in December, the U.S. Supreme Court took three months and six pages to summarily reverse the judgment.  Although a state need not afford full faith and credit to another state’s judgment if that state’s courts did not have subject matter jurisdiction, the Supreme Court reasoned, “[t]hat jurisdictional inquiry . . . is a limited one.”  The state court must only look to see “[i]f the judgment on its face appears to be a record of a court of general jurisdiction, such jurisdiction over the cause and the parties is to be presumed unless disproved by extrinsic evidence, or by the record itself.” Slip. Op. at 3 (quotations and citations omitted).  Because under Georgia law, the state superior court has exclusive jurisdiction over adoption matters, the Supreme Court held, Alabama courts were required to enforce the Georgia judgment.  Whether the Georgia judge erred in applying Georgia adoption law did not strip that court of jurisdiction.

The unanimity of the Supreme Court’s decision is a reminder that the diverse views of the various “laboratories of democracy”  does not permit one state to ignore a valid court order entered in another.

For more information regarding the Full Faith and Credit Clause or the Court’s decision in V.L. v. E.L., please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at keinhorn@genovaburns.com, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at jborek@genovaburns.com.