Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Georgia appeals court upholds a second-parent adoption on narrow grounds and expresses doubt about whether such adoptions are allowed in Georgia

It's another lesbian-behaving-badly case, this one entitled Bates v. Bates.  In 2007, a lesbian couple, Nicole and Tina Bates, successfully petitioned a Georgia trial court for a second-parent adoption that made Tina a legal parent of the child Nicole gave birth to after conception through donor insemination.  Three years later, after the couple split up, Nicole went back to the same court and asked for the adoption to be set aside.  (Even after all these years, and everything I know, I cannot write this last sentence without screaming inside.)  The court denied the motion, finding that Georgia law did not allow an adoption to be challenged after six months.  Nicole unsuccesfully petitioned to appeal that order.

Meanwhile, Tina had filed for custody in a different county.  After Nicole lost her initial attempt to void the adoption, she moved to dismiss Tina's custody action by arguing, again, that the adoption decree was not valid.  The judge granted Nicole's motion to dismiss and so threw out Tina's custody petition.  The trial judge found that Georgia does not allow second-parent adoption.  It also ruled that it could not adjudicate custody of the child because the Georgia Constitution prohibits courts from ruling on the "respective rights arising as a result of or in connection with [a relationship between persons of the same sex]."

Tina appealed, and in the Bates decision issued two weeks ago, the Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division, ruled in her favor.  But it did so on the narrow ground that Nicole had had her shot at claiming the adoption void and had lost.  Having lost once, she could not relitigate the same issue in a different court. (This legal doctrine goes by the Latin term res judicata.)  In the process of ruling for Tina, however, the court expressed skepticism about whether Georgia does, in fact, allow second-parent adoption.  It suggested Nicole's argument had "merit," and called the practice of second-parent adoption in Georgia "doubtful."   The court therefore sent Tina's custody petition back to the trial court.  The court noted that adjudicating the custody of the child arises out of the adoption decree and not the relationship between Tina and Nicole and therefore does not run afoul of the state constitution. There is no indication in the opinion about when Tina last saw her child.

In the opinion's final footnote, the court noted that "some" of the judges (there were only three on the panel) thought it might be appropriate to estop Nicole from challenging the very decree she previously sought to obtain.  "In the original...petition for adoption," the footnote reads, "Nicole not only affirmatively invoked the jurisdiction of the...court, but her own lawyer prepared the decree she now contends is void.  To some of us, it seems that the present attack upon the validity of that decree amounts to an attempt to play the courts for fools, and that is the sort of thing that judges ought not tolerate."  Nevertheless, because res judicata was a sufficient ground, the court did not need to rule on that alternate ground.  Unfortunately, a 2010 North Carolina ruling showed no such restraint, and did allow a bio mom to challenge -- successfully -- the very adoption decree she had participated in obtaining.

The court's questioning of the validity of second-parent adoption could unfortunately impact the trial judges who have been granting such adoptions.  On the other hand, when Nicole asked the Georgia Supreme Court to review the denial of her motion to set aside the adoption it did not do so.  I don't know what to read into that denial.  I do hope that the judges who believe that Georgia law does allow such adoptions hold their ground until, and unless, a higher court tells them directly that they are wrong.

1 comment:

jmburda said...

This is a disturbing development. I wonder why a lawyer would take the case. After all, we are not required to accept every case that walks in the door. Or, are we seeing lawyers who take the cases because they oppose LGBT parenting rights. I hope Georgia doesn't follow North Carolina. Perhaps this is a second front to detract attention from marriage equality. Or, can we use it to enhance the marriage argument.