Case of the Day: V.L. v. E.L.

The case of the day is V.L. v. E.L. (S. Ct. 2016). Longtime readers know that I have an interest in the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Today’s case is purely domestic and not a close call, but still interesting.

V.L. and E.L., both women, were in a relationship from 1995 to 2011. E.L. gave birth to three children using assisted reproductive technology, and the couple raised the children together. They decided that V.L. would adopt the children. V.L. filed an adoption petition in Fulton County, Georgia. E.L. appeared in the case and consented to the adoption, without relinquishing her own parental rights. The Georgia court granted the petition and entered a final decree of adoption.

V.L. and E.L. split up in 2011. At the time, they were living in Alabama. V.L. filed a petition in an Alabama family court alleging that E.L. had been denying her access to the children and asking the Alabama court to register the Georgia adoption judgment and award her visitation rights. The family court granted visitation, and E.L. appealed. Ultimately, the Alabama Supreme Court held that the Georgia court had lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter a decree allowing V.L. to adopt the children without terminating V.L.’s parental rights. Thus, the Alabama court held, it was not required to give full faith and credit to the Georgia judgment.

In a per curiam decision, the Supreme Court summarily reversed.

A State 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 the cause of action, the logic or consistency of the decision, or the validity of the legal principles on which the judgment is based.”

True, the second state is not required to give full faith and credit to the judgment if the court of the first state lacked jurisdiction. But the jurisdictional inquiry in the second state is limited:

If 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.

The Alabama court had cited the Georgia statute, which could be read to allow adoption only if all legal parents relinquished their rights. But the Supreme Court concluded that the Alabama court had wrongly turned a disagreement about a merits question—what does the Georgia statute permit—into a jurisdictional question. The statute did not purport to be jurisdictional, though, and the Alabama court did not demonstrate that it was. In short, it was beyond the Alabama court’s power, under the full faith and credit clause, to refuse to recognize the Georgia judgment.

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