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High Court Restores Gay Adoptive Mother’s Rights

(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of an Alabama woman who sought legal custody of her children after breaking up with her same-sex partner.

The two women at the center of the case, identified in court documents by their initials, were in a committed relationship in Alabama for 17 years before their acrimonious split. During their years together, E.L. gave birth to three children, which V.L. wanted to adopt.

On the advice of an attorney, V.L. turned to a court in Georgia, where the laws were more favorable to gay adoption, and she was granted full parental rights.

However, after the women broke up, they found it impossible to agree on child custody. V.L. asked an Alabama court to grant joint custody, and it held that the Georgia adoption order must be honored.

E.L. appealed, and the Alabama Supreme Court tossed the ruling out, holding Georgia law barred V.L. from adopting the children unless their birth mother E.L. had relinquished her parental rights.

The Alabama justices went on to say the Georgia court erred in awarding adoption rights to V.L. by misinterpreting Georgia state laws.

V.L. filed her petition for a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 16, 2015.

In an unsigned ruling on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court said Alabama had gotten the case wrong and that the Georgia court's ruling must be honored.

"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," the court said.

"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' ... 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.' That time-honored rule controls here," the justices said.

"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," they continued. "It follows that the Alabama Supreme Court erred in refusing to grant that judgment full faith and credit."

In a statement released through her lawyers, V.L. said she's overjoyed at the ruling.

"I have been my children's mother in every way for their whole lives," she said. "I thought that adopting them meant that we would be able to be together always. The Supreme Court has done what's right for my family," she said.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights organization, also praised the Supreme Court decision in a written statement.

"Any attempt to deny legal rights to our families is reprehensible, and this ruling establishes that bias and discrimination cannot be allowed to undermine the bond between LGBT parents and their children," said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. "The nation's highest court today ruled in the best interests of these children, setting a firm precedent for others across our nation. These children have two parents, and should have the security that comes with legal recognition."

"We applaud the courageous plaintiff and her legal team, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, for their victory," Warbelow said.

Tobie Smith, the court-appointed guardian ad litem in the case, said, "as much as anything, I am pleased that there are no more battles to be fought over whether V.L. is her children's legal parent."

Smith said as the acrimony and uncertainty surrounded the case harmed both V.L. and the children, and that it is likely some damage was done to the individuals' relationships with one another.

"Today's decision by the Supreme Court re-establishes what a Georgia Superior Court decreed nearly nine years ago when V.L. adopted them: that now and for the rest of their lives, V.L. and E.L. both are the children's parents," Smith said. "Though there still will be disputes regarding visitation schedules and other such matters, they will no longer be contested under the cloud of questions about who the children's parents are. That alone should help the children begin to regain the senses of security and stability that they, like all children, need and deserve."

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