BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD | In a technical ruling that has anti-gay forces in Iowa panicked about the pending appeal of last year's same-sex marriage victory in a lower court, the state Supreme Court ruled on January 18 that a trial judge erred in invalidating two second-parent adoptions approved by other trial courts years earlier.
Although the Supreme Court pointedly refused to rule on the merits of whether the Iowa adoption statute allows second-parent adoptions, it held that once a trial court issues an adoption order that is not appealed, it must, with very limited exceptions, be considered final.
Supreme Court OKs second-parent proceeding; anti-marriage forces alarmed
The case arose out of the separation of Heather and Jamie Schott. After the couple began their relationship in 2000, a Polk County district judge approved Heather's adoption of Jamie's child from her former marriage once the father's parental rights were terminated. After Jamie had a second child through artificial insemination, a judge approved another adoption petition from Heather.
As the women ended their relationship, Heather filed a petition in Polk County seeking a declaration of her parental rights to custody and visitation. Jamie filed a counterclaim, seeking a ruling on distribution of their property and an award of alimony under the divorce statute. Jamie did not challenge Heather's parental status, acknowledging her as adoptive parent of the children. Heather moved to dismiss Jamie's counterclaim, arguing that Iowa's divorce law did not apply because the women were not married.
District Judge D.J. Stovall easily concluded that the divorce law did not apply, commenting that Jamie had other potential legal avenues for property division. He also determined that Heather's adoptions of the two children were invalid, finding that Iowa law did not allow for second-parent adoptions. The Iowa statute requires that the natural parents' rights be extinguished as part of an adoption, unless the adopting party is a step-parent, in which case that individual's spouse of course retains parental rights. In the case of Jamie and Heather, the judge in one of the adoptions found, using the same logic, that Jamie relinquishing her parental rights would lead to an “absurd result.”
Since Jamie's parental rights had not been terminated, Stovall found, Heather could not adopt. Finding that both adoptions were invalid, the judge concluded Heather was a “legal stranger” to the children with no standing to seek custody and visitation.
The state Supreme Court unanimously overturned Stovall's ruling in an opinion by Justice Michael Streit.
It made no difference, according to Streit, whether Heather's two adoptions were based on misinterpretation of the state adoption statute. What mattered was that nobody had appealed those rulings, and thus they were final. Finality counts for a lot, with subsequent challenges available only on limited grounds, such as lack of jurisdiction by the court that originally ruled or a due process claim by a natural parent. The Supreme Court found that no such ground applied here.
“We need not decide whether second-parent adoptions are permissible in Iowa for purposes of this appeal,” Streit wrote. “Even if the district court who issued the adoption decrees misinterpreted Iowa's adoption statute, the adoptions are not void.”
Concluding that “Heather and Jamie are the children's legal parents,” the Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court to consider Heather's petition regarding custody and visitation.
This ruling evoked criticism from opponents of same-sex marriage in Iowa, who expressed concern that it might signal the Supreme Court's inclination to affirm the victory marriage equality advocates won last year, also in a Polk County (Des Moines) court. The ruling could of course lend new fuel to their goal of putting an anti-marriage state constitutional amendment before Iowa voters.