POLITICS
03/07/2016 10:04 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2016

Supreme Court Sides With Lesbian Mom Denied Adoption Rights In Alabama

This is the first big decision following last summer's gay rights ruling.

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled for a lesbian mother who was denied adoption rights by the state of Alabama after she moved to the state from Georgia, where she was the lawful parent of children she had raised from birth.

The ruling didn't cite last summer's blockbuster decision finding that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. But many observers saw it as an outgrowth of that ruling, since the latest decision implicated the parental rights of a lesbian couple.

The petitioner in the case, identified in court papers only as "V.L.," had been in a relationship with her partner, "E.L.," for more than 15 years. They had three children, whom they conceived through assisted reproductive technology.

Since E.L. was the biological mother of the children, V.L. had applied in Georgia to become their parent through adoption. Once that became official, the family moved to Alabama.

But in 2011, the couple ended their relationship. V.L. moved out of the home, and E.L. declined to grant her access to the children, prompting V.L. to seek a court order in Alabama granting her custody and visitation rights for the children.

A family court initially agreed with V.L., but the the Alabama Supreme Court, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Roy Moore, eventually ruled against her, reasoning that Georgia should never have granted her the adoption of the children in the first place. In a 7-to-1 ruling, the court said that V.L.'s parental rights were void because Georgia "was not empowered" by law to recognize V.L. as the children's mother.

But in its ruling Monday, the Supreme Court said Alabama had to recognize V.L.'s parental rights under Georgia law. It based its decision on the Constitution's full faith and credit clause, which instructs states to accept and enforce judgments obtained in other states, irrespective of whether the law doesn't match up from one state to the next.

"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," said the court's decision in V.L. v. E.L., which was unsigned and did not note any dissenting opinions. "It follows that the Alabama Supreme Court erred in refusing to grant that judgment full faith and credit."

The Supreme Court decided the case "per curiam," which means it was issued in the name of the whole court and without any of the justices attaching their names to it. The case was widely expected to be decided that way, since the court didn't formally add it to its docket and no oral arguments had been scheduled for it.

Since the dispute between V.L. and E.L. didn't involve a reading of Obergefell v. Hodges, last June's same-sex marriage ruling, perhaps the justices felt the most discreet course of action -- in a year that's already loaded with controversial cases --- was to decide the case in a way that would draw the least attention.

This may explain why the ruling, which only runs six pages, is largely legalistic and methodical -- without any of the flourishes and nods to dignity and equality that accentuated Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges.

But when V.L. first appealed to the Supreme Court in November, she saw the case and what Alabama had done to her in starker terms.

"As a result, for all Georgia same-sex couples who adopted a child prior to Obergefell v. Hodges," her lawyers wrote in their petition, "the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision strips those couples of the legal bonds tying both parents to their children if those families cross the Alabama state line."

Their petition later added: "In light of these serious consequences to family stability, the Court should grant review."

The court did just that, and then some.

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