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Court restores woman’s right to be a mother

The Supreme Court on Monday restored an unmarried Alabama woman’s legal right to adopt three children that she and their birth mother, formerly her lesbian partner, had been raising together before their relationship ended.  The Court acted without full legal briefs and oral argument in the case of V.L. v. E.L.  The woman now must go back to state court to seek the right to access to the children, at least for visitation.

The fact that the Court, usually deeply divided on gay rights issue, decided the case by a unanimous vote suggested strongly that the Court had mainly viewed the case as turning on the constitutional duty of one state not to second-guess the court orders issued in another state in a valid use of the sister state court’s powers.  The Alabama Supreme Court reached its own view of Georgia law in nullifying an adoption order issued in that state giving each parent equal rights as mothers of the children.

The Justices acted on the case among a series of orders and summary opinions, while not granting review of any new cases.  The Court disposed of forty-eight cases that it had been holding for its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana.  The ruling, issued January 25, gave youths who had committed murders before they were eighteen years old the right to challenge life-without-parole prison sentences, even if that sentence had been imposed decades earlier.  The Court sent forty-five of those cases back to lower courts for another look, and denied review of the other three.  Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, issued separate opinions applying to each of the forty-five cases sent to lower courts (linked is an example), cautioning judges not to read anything final into the Court’s actions Monday.

The Court’s unsigned (“per curiam”) decision in the Alabama adoption case was based entirely on the provision in the Constitution’s Article IV declaring that “full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state,” and on the Court’s prior interpretations of that clause.  If a state court has jurisdiction under its own laws to issue a decision, Monday’s opinion said, then that decision is entitled to respect in the courts of every other state.

“A state,” the Court said, “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… On the contrary, ‘the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution precludes any inquiry into the merits of he cause of action, the logic or consistency of he decision, or the validity of the legal principles on which the judgment is based'” (quoting from a 1940 Supreme Court decision).

The Alabama state court, in overturning the Georgia adoption order for V.L. in this case, had ruled — based on Georgia law — that the Georgia court lacked the authority to give V.L. legal right to the children unless the parental rights of the birth mother, E.L., were first taken away.  When the adoption order was issued in Georgia, both V.L. and E.L. supported equal rights for V.L., and E.L. did not give up her parental rights.  The Georgia court, the Justices’ ruled, was wrong in its view of what Georgia law would allow, and thus its decision had to be overturned.

The Court included the following among its actions on Monday:

** Dividing six to two, with each side arguing its points at length, the Court overturned a Louisiana man’s murder conviction and death sentence because the prosecutors at the trial had withheld evidence that would have supported the defense lawyer’s side of the case.  The case was Wearry v. Cain.  The Court had been examining the case since September; it apparently took that long for preparation of the “per curiam” opinion for the Court and the dissent by Alito, joined by Thomas.

** Over Thomas’s dissent, joined by Alito, the Court refused to hear a First Amendment challenge to a decision by the city and county operators of Seattle’s transit system barring a conservative advocacy group from posting an ad on the side of buses showing the pictures of suspected terrorists, and urging the public to help capture one of them.  The group wanted to display that ad after the buses previously had carried a poster, promoted by the State Department and the FBI, seeking information to help in capturing sixteen terrorists, who were pictured.  The Court gave no reason for denying the appeal; the two Justices dissented in a separate opinion in American Freedom Defense Initiative v. King County.

Among the controversies that the Justices considered at last Friday’s private Conference, but on which they took no action on Monday, was the challenge by the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma to the marijuana distribution system allowed in the neighboring state of Colorado.  The two states are seeking the right to sue Colorado directly in the Supreme Court, without first suing in lower courts.  The Court is expected to continue examining the case until it decides for or against letting the suit go forward.


Cases: V.L. v. E.L.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court restores woman’s right to be a mother, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 7, 2016, 2:32 PM),