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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today, involving a grandparent adoption

In In the Matter of the Adoption of Minor Children: I.B. and W.B.: B.B. v. B.C. and J.L., and Indiana Department of Child Services, an 11-page, 5-0 opinion, Chief Justice Rush writes:

After I.B. and W.B. were removed from their parents, both grandmothers petitioned to adopt them. The trial court permitted the maternal grandmother and her fiancé to adopt the children—even though the maternal grandmother has a prior felony conviction that statutorily disqualifies her from adopting—and the paternal grandmother appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding the statutory disqualification unconstitutional as applied because it created an “irrebuttable presumption” that blocked consideration of the children’s best interests.

We disagree with that analysis. The United States Supreme Court has left its “irrebuttable presumption” cases lying dormant for several decades. And under its more recent “classification” analysis, the statute’s regrettable consequences under the facts of this case establish no as-applied constitutional violation. We therefore reverse the trial court and remand to reconsider both adoption petitions to the extent they are statutorily permissible, receiving supplemental evidence if it chooses. * * *

Under the circumstances of this case, Indiana Code section 31-19-11-1(c) regrettably bars an adoption that, to all appearances, would otherwise be in I.B. and W.B.’s best interests. But that does not make the statute unconstitutional as applied, because its prohibitions are rationally related to a legitimate legislative purpose and do not discriminate against a suspect class. We therefore reverse the trial court’s judgment on both adoption petitions and remand with instructions to vacate the adoption decree within thirty days of this Court’s opinion being certified and reconsider both adoptions to the extent they are not barred by the statute, including by considering whether a non-adoptive placement such as guardianship may be in the children’s best interests and by receiving additional evidence if the trial court so chooses.[6]

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[2] Though the Supreme Court has never expressly overruled Vlandis, it has not invalidated a statute under Vlandis since United States Dep’t of Agric. v. Muerry, 413 U.S. 508 (1973), over forty years ago. People v. Wildman, 858 N.Y.S.2d 504, 509 (N.Y. Crim. Ct. 2008). So while we would follow Vlandis or Stanley if they were directly controlling, we will not expand them when the high Court has conspicuously declined to do so.

[6] We also note that the findings and conclusions were signed by the magistrate, but not by the court. Magistrates may enter final orders in criminal cases, I.C. §§ 33-23-5-5(14), -9(b), but otherwise “may not enter a final appealable order unless sitting as a judge pro tempore or a special judge.” I.C. § 33-23-5-8(2). Instead, they may only “report findings,” while “[t]he court shall enter the final order.” I.C. § 33-23-5-9(a). Effective July 1, 2015, Indiana Code section 33-23-5-5 has been amended to expand magistrates’ authority to approve and accept plea agreements, civil settlement agreements, and agreements in domestic-relations and paternity actions, see P.L. 173-2015, § 4—but that newfound authority does not extend to issuing an adoption decree. We trust the court will observe this necessity on remand.

Nevertheless, “it has been the long-standing policy of this court to view the authority of the officer appointed to try a case not as affecting the jurisdiction of the court”—and so “the failure of a party to object at trial to the authority of a court officer to enter a final appealable order waives the issue for appeal.” Floyd v. State, 650 N.E.2d 28, 32 (Ind. 1994). The issue is thus waived here, since neither party has raised it.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 11, 2015 04:19 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions