Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hooray for Infant J and his Two Daddies!

Yesterday, in a carefully constructed and complex decision, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state of Louisiana to issue a new birth certificate to a baby with two dads. In other words, Louisiana has to put both men's names on the certificate.

Waaaaiiiit a minute. Louisiana? Recognizing a same-sex adoption? Yes, indeed, courtesy of Ye Olde United States Constitution. The “Full Faith and Credit” clause, to be precise. That’s the part that says:
Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.
In other words, what a judge says in Vegas, doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas.

So how did Louisiana get mixed up in such a sordid business? Here’s the background. Infant J was born in Louisiana. The happy dads who adopted him live in San Diego, but adopted the boy through a court in New York, where same-sex adoptions are legal. (I was going to say it’s sort of like rescuing a cat who lives in another state, but I thought better of it). J’s birth certificate listed ... I don’t know what it listed, but I presume it listed J’s birth parents. As is customary, the couple sought a new birth certificate listing both their names as parents.

Well, Louisiana didn’t much like that idea, so its Registrar of Records (the Poobah of Paperwork, if you will) said, uh, nope, we’re not gonna do that, cuz only married couples can adopt kids in our state.

The dads sued Louisiana in federal court, based on a couple different arguments. They argued, first, that the Full Faith and Credit clause of the United States Constitution says Louisiana has to honor the adoption. Second, they argued that the Registrar’s failure to issue the document violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. (That civil rights stuff can be such a nuisance, can’t it?) I think there was a third reason but the opinion is 36 pages long and I don’t feel like reading it again.

The district (trial) court found that the Registrar’s argument was weak. Really weak. So weak, in fact, it ruled in favor the dads without even going through the bother of a trial (in legalese, it granted a summary judgment to J and his parents). The Registrar appealed.

Well, the federal appeals court for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision based on the Full Faith and Credit clause. Which is pretty darned cool, considering that the Fifth Circuit includes Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. And the decision was unanimous.

I suppose I should explain the Full Faith and Credit Clause a little more. The clause has been interpreted to apply to court judgments. So, if a court decides something in New Jersey, a court in New Mexico can’t undecide it. Adoptions are court judgments, and have long been held subject to the Full Faith and Credit clause.

(The FFC does not, however, apply to statutes on matters about which each state is perfectly capable of making its own laws. That’s why gay marriages are probably not going to transport very well over state lines.)

Why this distinction between judgments and statutes? Dunno. Just because.

(hey, FFC law is actually kind of complex, and frankly, I just don’t have the patience to connect the dots, okay?).

Now, of course, Louisiana has the right to appeal the Fifth Circuit’s ruling on this to the Supreme Court. So little J may not see a new birth certificate until he’s growing facial hair.

But it’ll come. Yeah. It’ll come.

Thank you, Fifth Circuit, for moving us two steps forward.

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