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Second-parent adoptions, widely used by same-sex couples to form families, were declared legal Monday by the California Supreme Court. The 6-1 ruling legitimizes as many as 20,000 adoptions that had been placed in limbo by a lower court decision and brings California in line with 21 other states that have validated second-parent adoptions. “Our explicitly recognizing their validity will prevent uncertainty, conflict and protracted litigation in this area, all of which plainly are harmful to children caught in the middle,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the court. “Unmarried couples who have brought a child into the world with the expectation that they will raise it together,” she held, “should be on notice that if they separate the same rules concerning custody and visitation as apply to all other parents will apply to them.” The decision rated raucous cheers from gay groups, who have feared the worst since October 2001, when a divided San Diego appeal court declared second-parent adoptions illegal. “This decision ensures that California law strengthens, rather than destroys, family bonds,” Kathryn “Kate” Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a prepared statement. NCLR was one of several groups that signed on as amicus curiae. Shannon Minter, NCLR’s legal director, said the decision could also have a huge impact outside the state. “California’s adoption statutes are very similar to the statutes in most other states,” he said, “so other state courts will obviously be very influenced by how the California Supreme Court interpreted our statutes.” Second-parent adoptions occur when one person adopts the biological parent’s child to provide two parents. In Sharon S. v. Superior Court (Annette F.), 03 C.D.O.S. 6924, Annette Friskopp had used the method in 1996 to adopt longtime partner Sharon Silverstein’s son Zachary, who was born through artificial insemination. But while doing the same thing three years later for Silverstein’s second son Joshua, the two broke up, and Silverstein took steps to block the adoption. In siding with Silverstein, a divided 4th District Court of Appeal in 2001 declared all second-parent adoptions in California invalid, saying they were not authorized under the state’s Family Code. The high court disagreed and said the appellate ruling contained the makings of a disaster. “Affirmance not only would cast a shadow of uncertainty over the legal relationships between thousands of children and their adoptive parents (contrary to the clearly stated intention of all interested parties),” Werdegar wrote, “but potentially could prompt some adoptive parents to disclaim their established responsibilities.” She also rejected the argument that couples who had used second-parent adoptions could re-adopt their children by using new state law to become domestic partners. “Undertaking a ‘re-adoption’ would pose financial hardship and painful legal uncertainty,” Werdegar wrote. “No parent should have to face these kinds of choices, and no child should be placed in this kind of needless jeopardy.” In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Marvin Baxter, joined by Justice Ming Chin, wholeheartedly supported second-parent adoptions, but argued that the majority had gone too far by allowing a birth parent to terminate his or her rights for any type of adoption, not just second parent. Baxter argued that throws the door open for “new and even bizarre family structures” where children could have multiple parents. “Nothing in the Family Code would be left to prevent a child from having three or four or a village’s worth of legal parents,” he wrote, “so long as all the would-be parents agree to waive [termination of rights] and a sole family court judge sometime, somewhere, finds the adoption to be in the child’s interest.” Justice Janice Rogers Brown, in a separate concurring and dissenting opinion, agreed, saying that the majority was committed to “the-more-parents-the-merrier view of parenthood.” She went even further by arguing that the ruling “trivializes family bonds,” and that couples should have a “legal relationship,” such as a registered domestic partnership, before being allowed to adopt. But she said existing adoptions shouldn’t be disturbed. Werdegar’s majority ruling was unusually harsh in dealing with the dissents. She called the comments about multiple parents “nonsense,” and pounced on many of Brown’s arguments with detailed rebuttals, even using a quote from conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to shoot down Brown’s contention that the ruling trivialized family bonds. John Dodd, the Tustin lawyer who represented Silverstein, could not be reached for comment. But Sen. William “Pete” Knight, R-Palmdale, whose Proposition 22 Legal Defense and Education Fund filed an amicus brief opposing second-parent adoptions, said he didn’t think the Supreme Court “really understood what they were doing.” Even so, he said his group planned to do nothing legally or legislatively to counteract the ruling. Charles Bird, a partner in San Diego’s Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps who represented Friskopp, said the decision gave him goose bumps. “A lot of lawyers who have been involved in this case — whether adoption lawyers or appellate advocates or child advocates or civil liberties advocates,” he said, “have been approached by friends or clients who have adopted and who said, ‘Do we need to go back and do this all over again?’ Most of us said, ‘Don’t change your life now. Trust the California Supreme Court to get it right,’ and they got it right.” The court’s decision, however, didn’t completely resolve the conflict between Silverstein and Friskopp. It sends the case back to the appellate court to let Silverstein argue that she signed adoption consent papers under fraud or duress and that finalization of the adoption would be contrary to her son’s interest.

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