throbber
1
`
`Cite as: 577 U. S. ____ (2016)
`
`Per Curiam
`SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
`V. L. v. E. L., ET AL.
`ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE
`SUPREME COURT OF ALABAMA
`No. 15–648 Decided March 7, 2016
` PER CURIAM.
` A Georgia court entered a final judgment of adoption
`making petitioner V. L. a legal parent of the children that
`she and respondent E. L. had raised together from birth.
`V. L. and E. L. later separated while living in Alabama.
`V. L. asked the Alabama courts to enforce the Georgia
`judgment and grant her custody or visitation rights. The
`Alabama Supreme Court ruled against her, holding that
`the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States
`Constitution does not require the Alabama courts to re-
`spect the Georgia judgment. That judgment of the Ala-
`bama Supreme Court is now reversed by this summary
`disposition.
`
`I
` V. L. and E. L. are two women who were in a relation-
`ship from approximately 1995 until 2011. Through as-
`sisted reproductive technology, E. L. gave birth to a child
`named S. L. in 2002 and to twins named N. L. and H. L. in
`2004. After the children were born, V. L. and E. L. raised
`them together as joint parents.
` V. L. and E. L. eventually decided to give legal status to
`the relationship between V. L. and the children by having
`V. L. formally adopt them. To facilitate the adoption, the
`couple rented a house in Alpharetta, Georgia. V. L. then
`filed an adoption petition in the Superior Court of Fulton
`County, Georgia. E. L. also appeared in that proceeding.
`While not relinquishing her own parental rights, she gave
`her express consent to V. L.’s adoption of the children as a
`
`

`
`2
`
`
`V. L. v. E. L.
`
`Per Curiam
`second parent. The Georgia court determined that V. L.
`had complied with the applicable requirements of Georgia
`law, and entered a final decree of adoption allowing V. L.
`to adopt the children and recognizing both V. L. and E. L.
`as their legal parents.
` V. L. and E. L. ended their relationship in 2011, while
`living in Alabama, and V. L. moved out of the house that
`the couple had shared. V. L. later filed a petition in the
`Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Alabama, alleging that
`E. L. had denied her access to the children and interfered
`with her ability to exercise her parental rights. She asked
`the Alabama court to register the Georgia adoption judg-
`ment and award her some measure of custody or visitation
`rights. The matter was transferred to the Family Court of
`Jefferson County. That court entered an order awarding
`V. L. scheduled visitation with the children.
` E. L. appealed the visitation order to the Alabama Court
`of Civil Appeals. She argued, among other points, that the
`Alabama courts should not recognize the Georgia judg-
`ment because the Georgia court lacked subject-matter
`jurisdiction to enter it. The Court of Civil Appeals rejected
`that argument. It held, however, that the Alabama family
`court had erred by failing to conduct an evidentiary hear-
`ing before awarding V. L. visitation rights, and so it re-
`manded for the family court to conduct that hearing.
` The Alabama Supreme Court reversed. It held that the
`Georgia court had no subject-matter jurisdiction under
`Georgia law to enter a judgment allowing V. L. to adopt
`the children while still recognizing E. L.’s parental rights.
`As a consequence, the Alabama Supreme Court held Ala-
`bama courts were not required to accord full faith and
`credit to the Georgia judgment.
`II
` The Constitution provides that “Full Faith and Credit
`shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records,
`
`

`
`
`
`3
`
`Cite as: 577 U. S. ____ (2016)
`
`Per Curiam
`and judicial Proceedings of every other State.” U. S.
`Const., Art. IV, §1. That Clause requires each State to
`recognize and give effect to valid judgments rendered by
`the courts of its sister States. It serves “to alter the status
`of the several states as independent foreign sovereignties,
`each free to ignore obligations created under the laws or
`by the judicial proceedings of the others, and to make
`them integral parts of a single nation.” Milwaukee County
`v. M. E. White Co., 296 U. S. 268, 277 (1935).
` With respect to judgments, “the full faith and credit
`obligation is exacting.” Baker v. General Motors Corp.,
`522 U. S. 222, 233 (1998). “A final judgment in one State,
`if rendered by a court with adjudicatory authority over the
`subject matter and persons governed by the judgment,
`qualifies for recognition throughout the land.” Ibid. 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 Constitu-
`tion precludes any inquiry into the merits of the cause of
`action, the logic or consistency of the decision, or the valid-
`ity of the legal principles on which the judgment is based.”
`Milliken v. Meyer, 311 U. S. 457, 462 (1940).
` A State is not required, however, to afford full faith and
`credit to a judgment rendered by a court that “did not
`have jurisdiction over the subject matter or the relevant
`parties.” Underwriters Nat. Assurance Co. v. North Caro-
`lina Life & Accident & Health Ins. Guaranty Assn., 455
`U. S. 691, 705 (1982). “Consequently, before a court is
`bound by [a] judgment rendered in another State, it may
`inquire into the jurisdictional basis of the foreign court’s
`decree.” Ibid. That jurisdictional inquiry, however, is a
`limited one. “[I]f 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.’ ”
`
`

`
`4
`
`
`V. L. v. E. L.
`
`Per Curiam
`Milliken, supra, at 462 (quoting Adam v. Saenger, 303
`U. S. 59, 62 (1938)).
` Those principles resolve this case. Under Georgia law,
`as relevant here, “[t]he superior courts of the several
`counties shall have exclusive jurisdiction in all matters of
`adoption.” Ga. Code Ann. §19–8–2(a) (2015). That provi-
`sion on its face gave the Georgia Superior Court subject-
`matter jurisdiction to hear and decide the adoption peti-
`tion at issue here. The Superior Court resolved that
`matter by entering a final judgment that made V. L. the
`legal adoptive parent of the children. Whatever the merits of
`that judgment, it was within the statutory grant of juris-
`diction over “all matters of adoption.” Ibid. The Georgia
`court thus had the “adjudicatory authority over the subject
`matter” required to entitle its judgment to full faith and
`credit. Baker, supra, at 233.
` The Alabama Supreme Court reached a different result
`by relying on Ga. Code Ann. §19–8–5(a). That statute
`states (as relevant here) that “a child who has any living
`parent or guardian may be adopted by a third party . . .
`only if each such living parent and each such guardian has
`voluntarily and in writing surrendered all of his or her
`rights to such child.” The Alabama Supreme Court con-
`cluded that this provision prohibited the Georgia Superior
`Court from allowing V. L. to adopt the children while also
`allowing E. L. to keep her existing parental rights. It
`further concluded that this provision went not to the
`merits but to the Georgia court’s subject-matter jurisdic-
`tion. In reaching that crucial second conclusion, the Ala-
`bama Supreme Court seems to have relied solely on the
`fact that the right to adoption under Georgia law is purely
`statutory, and “ ‘[t]he requirements of Georgia’s adoptions
`statutes are mandatory and must be strictly construed in
`favor of the natural parents.’ ” App. to Pet. for Cert. 23a–
`24a (quoting In re Marks, 300 Ga. App. 239, 243, 684 S. E.
`2d 364, 367 (2009)).
`
`

`
`
`
`5
`
`Cite as: 577 U. S. ____ (2016)
`
`Per Curiam
` That analysis is not consistent with this Court’s control-
`ling precedent. Where a judgment indicates on its face
`that it was rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction,
`such jurisdiction “ ‘is to be presumed unless disproved.’ ”
`Milliken, supra, at 462 (quoting Adam, supra, at 62).
`There is nothing here to rebut that presumption. The
`Georgia statute on which the Alabama Supreme Court
`relied, Ga. Code Ann. §19–8–5(a), does not speak in juris-
`dictional terms; for instance, it does not say that a Georgia
`court “shall have jurisdiction to enter an adoption decree”
`only if each existing parent or guardian has surrendered
`his or her parental rights. Neither the Georgia Supreme
`Court nor any Georgia appellate court, moreover, has
`construed §19–8–5(a) as jurisdictional. That construction
`would also be difficult to reconcile with Georgia law.
`Georgia recognizes that in general, subject-matter juris-
`diction addresses “whether a court has jurisdiction to
`decide a particular class of cases,” Goodrum v. Goodrum,
`283 Ga. 163, 657 S. E. 2d 192 (2008), not whether a court
`should grant relief in any given case. Unlike §19–8–2(a),
`which expressly gives Georgia superior courts “exclusive
`jurisdiction in all matters of adoption,” §19–8–5(a) does
`not speak to whether a court has the power to decide a
`general class of cases. It only provides a rule of decision to
`apply in determining if a particular adoption should be
`allowed.
` Section 19–8–5(a) does not become jurisdictional just
`because it is “ ‘mandatory’ ” and “ ‘must be strictly con-
`strued.’ ” App. to Pet. for Cert. 23a–24a (quoting Marks,
`supra, at 243, 684 S. E. 2d, at 367). This Court “has long
`rejected the notion that all mandatory prescriptions,
`however emphatic, are properly typed jurisdictional.”
`Gonzalez v. Thaler, 565 U. S. 134, ___ (2012) (slip op., at
`10–11) (internal quotation marks and ellipsis omitted).
`Indeed, the Alabama Supreme Court’s reasoning would
`give jurisdictional status to every requirement of the Geor-
`
`

`
`6
`
`
`V. L. v. E. L.
`
`Per Curiam
`gia adoption statutes, since Georgia law indicates those
`requirements are all mandatory and must be strictly
`construed. Marks, supra, at 243, 684 S. E. 2d, at 367.
`That result would comport neither with Georgia law nor
`with common sense.
` As Justice Holmes observed more than a century ago, “it
`sometimes may be difficult to decide whether certain
`words in a statute are directed to jurisdiction or to merits.”
`Fauntleroy v. Lum, 210 U. S. 230, 234–235 (1908). In such
`cases, especially where the Full Faith and Credit Clause is
`concerned, a court must be “slow to read ambiguous
`words, as meaning to leave the judgment open to dispute,
`or as intended to do more than fix the rule by which the
`court should decide.” Id., at 235. That time-honored rule
`controls here. The Georgia judgment appears on its face
`to have been issued by a court with jurisdiction, and there
`is no established Georgia law to the contrary. It follows
`that the Alabama Supreme Court erred in refusing to
`grant that judgment full faith and credit.
` The petition for writ of certiorari is granted. The judg-
`ment of the Alabama Supreme Court is reversed, and the
`case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent
`with this opinion.
`
`It is so ordered.

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