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V.L. v. E.L. (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

At issue in V.L. v. E.L. was whether the Full Faith and Credit Clause permits a court to deny recognition of an adoption judgment previously issued by a court in a sister state, based on the reviewing court’s determination that the issuing court erred in applying its own state’s adoption law.

V.L. and E.L. are two women who were in a committed relationship for nearly seventeen years. Through assisted reproduction, E.L. gave birth to one child in 2002 and to twins in 2004. To ensure legal parentage, V.L. adopted the children as a second parent with E.L.’s consent in the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia, and was granted full parental rights. Several years later the couple separated, and a dispute over child custody arose. V.L. sought joint custody in an Alabama circuit court based on her status as the children’s adoptive mother. Both the Alabama Circuit Court and the Court of Civil Appeals concluded that the Georgia adoption judgment must be honored.  However, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed, refusing to grant full faith and credit to the Georgia judgment, concluding that the Georgia Superior Court misapplied its own adoption statute which barred V.L. from adopting the children unless E.L. relinquished her own parental rights. According to the Alabama Supreme Court, the Georgia court’s misapplication of the Georgia adoption statute meant that the Georgia court lacked jurisdiction, and the adoption judgment was therefore not entitled to full faith and credit. V.L. sought review of the ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court by the United States Supreme Court, filing a petition for a writ of certiorari on November 16, 2015.

On December 17, 2015, Constitutional Accountability Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of V.L.’s petition, which urged the Court to grant review and hold that the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision violated the Full Faith and Credit Clause. As our brief explained, the Framers drafted the Full Faith and Credit Clause to prohibit states from refusing to respect the judgments and laws of their sister states, imposing a binding obligation on the states to give “Full Faith and Credit . . . to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.” The Alabama Supreme Court’s decision was irreconcilable with the text and history of this Clause and also contradicted the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeated affirmation of the obligation of states to recognize the final judgments of the courts of sister states. While there is a narrow exception to the Full Faith and Credit clause for cases in which a sister state court lacks jurisdiction to enter the judgment, the Supreme Court has carefully limited that exception, and it plainly did not apply here: whether the Georgia court misapplied Georgia law was a merits question, not a jurisdictional one. Were it otherwise, the narrow exception for jurisdictional defects would swallow the rule and undermine the “exacting” obligation of full faith and credit that the Framers enshrined in our national charter.

On March 7, 2016, the Supreme Court granted the petition for a writ of certiorari and issued a per curiam opinion, summarily reversing the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision.  As the Court explained,  the Georgia court had jurisdiction to hear the original adoption petition, and its judgment was therefore entitled to full faith and credit by the Alabama Supreme Court.