After the Alabama state supreme court threw in the towel last Friday and ended their opposition to the US Supreme Court decision banning same-sex marriage, yesterday saw the state supreme court suffer another setback, this time being directly rebuked by the US Supreme Court in an adoption case involving a lesbian couple.
The case involved a woman (identified as V. L.) who since 1995 had bee in a same-sex relationship with the birth mother (identified as E. L.) of three children (one born in 2002 and twins born in 2004) and had been involved in raising them from birth like any parent. In 2007, a court in Georgia granted, with E.L.’s approval, full parental rights to V. L.
But the couple split in 2011 after moving to Alabama and disagreed over custody of the children. V. L. sought joint custody and lower state courts had ruled in her favor. But the Alabama supreme court, intensely hostile to LGBT rights in any form, overruled them, saying that the Georgia courts had wrongly granted custody to her under Georgia’s law and that thus she had no parental rights to the three children.
But the US Supreme Court, with no hearing and no dissenting opinions, overturned Alabama’s supreme court decision, invoking Article IV of the US constitution that governs relations between the states and essentially says that a state must recognize properly carried out decisions of other states. If the authorities in Georgia (or any state for that matter) had properly decided something according to their own interpretation of their own laws, Alabama (or any other state) had no business second-guessing them and arguing that the decision was wrong. The opinion said that to do otherwise “would comport neither with Georgia law nor with common sense.”
Lyle Denniston explains the opinion in more detail.
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.
This was the potential nightmare that lay in wait if, last June, the US Supreme Court had issued a more limited decision that each state had the right to determine what constitutes marriage and who can get married, which is what some opponents of same-sex marriage had argued for. You would then have the issue of what to do when people who were legally married according to one state’s laws then moved to another state that had different laws that did not recognize their marriage. By striking down all such bans everywhere, that potential problem disappeared.