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State Constitutional Law

Wisconsin Court Upholds Ban on Adoption by Parent's Nonmarital Partner, Debates State Constitutional Interpretation

How should courts interpret state constitutional provisions that read, "All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights: among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."


From A.M.B. v. Circuit Court, decided last week by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley; the opinions are long, so these are only short excerpts:

A creature of statute, adoption confers legal rights and duties on adopted children and their adoptive parents. The legislature has made policy choices regarding the circumstances under which children may be adopted and by whom. A.M.B. is the biological mother of M.M.C. and wishes to have her nonmarital partner, T.G., adopt M.M.C. Under the adoption statutes, T.G. is not eligible to adopt M.M.C. because T.G. is not A.M.B.'s spouse.

A.M.B. and T.G. allege the legislatively drawn classifications violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in denying T.G. the right to adopt M.M.C. and in denying M.M.C. the right to be adopted by T.G. Because the adoption statutes do not restrict a fundamental right or regulate a protected class, we consider whether any rational basis exists for the legislative limits on eligibility to adopt a child. Among other legitimate state interests, promoting stability for adoptive children through marital families suffices for the statutes to survive this equal protection challenge; therefore, we affirm the circuit court….

The Supreme Court has declared, "equal protection is not a license for courts to judge the wisdom, fairness, or logic of legislative choices." Because the legislative classifications restricting adoption do not infringe a fundamental right or affect a protected class, we consider only whether any rational basis exists for the legislative limits on eligibility to adopt a child. Because the state has a legitimate interest in promoting stability for adoptive children through marital families, petitioners' equal protection challenge to Wisconsin's adoption statutes fails.

Justice Rebecca Frank Dallet concurred (joined by Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Janet Protasiewicz), arguing for a broader reading of the Wisconsin Constitution's Article I, Section 1:

Even a cursory review of Article I, Section 1 of our constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment indicates that the clauses have different meanings. Article I, Section 1 states, in its entirety:

All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights: among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Compare this with the Fourteenth Amendment which provides in pertinent part that "No State shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Aside from two shared words—"life" and "liberty"—Article I, Section 1 and the Fourteenth Amendment are worded in dramatically different ways. Article I, Section 1 protects more than the enumerated rights of "life, liberty, or property." It declares unequivocally that all Wisconsinites have "inherent rights," a phrase that was written "to be broad enough to cover every principle of natural right, of abstract justice." Whereas the Fourteenth Amendment's protections extend only to those rights "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental," the inherent rights contemplated by Article I, Section 1 are not so limited. Moreover, Article I, Section 1 begins with the clear and expansive declaration that all people are "born equally free and independent." … By contrast, the Fourteenth Amendment contains a narrower guarantee of "equal protection of the laws." …

Notwithstanding the many reasons to interpret our state constitution differently than the federal Constitution, litigants often overlook state constitutional claims, or fail to develop them fully. This case is a perfect example. Although petitioners argued that the adoption statutes at issue violate Article I, Section 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution, they offered little more than a citation to that section as support. Otherwise, the parties' briefs focused solely on the Fourteenth Amendment and federal precedent, and ignored the Wisconsin Constitution entirely.

That omission is somewhat understandable. Lawyers are surely more familiar with the extensive case law interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment. By comparison, our case law regarding Article I, Section 1 is sparse. But we must break this self-perpetuating cycle whereby lawyers fail to develop state constitutional arguments because they lack clear legal standards, which further prevents courts from developing clear legal standards. In a way, the lack of settled case law should be encouraging to litigants. It is up to us—judges, lawyers, and citizens—to give effect to the fundamental guarantees of Article I, Section 1. And in doing so, I agree with what Justice Dodge wrote more than 100 years ago, when he said that Article I, Section 1, should "not receive an unduly limited construction." …

Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley also wrote a separate concurring opinion (joined by Justices Annette Kingsland Ziegler and Brian Hagedorn) responding to Justice Dallet's separate concurrence (and citing in the process our own Steve Calabresi's cowritten article, Individual Rights Under State Constitutions in 2018: What Rights Are Deeply Rooted in a Modern-Day Consensus of the States?):

In recent years, a newfound interest in asserting state constitutional rights has emerged, which, in theory, should benefit individual liberty. State constitutional rights are just as important and worthy of protection as federal constitutional rights. And this court has a duty to enforce the rights protected under the Wisconsin Constitution.

Not all arguments for enforcing state constitutional rights are rooted in text, history, and tradition; some stem from disappointment with the outcomes in certain United States Supreme Court decisions. Negative reaction to the Burger, Rehnquist, and Roberts Courts' reluctance to "innovate" new federal constitutional rights, triggered a resurgence of interest by litigants and legal commentators in asking state courts to fill the gap….

Justice Rebecca Dallet argues this court should abandon its past practice of construing Article I, Section 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution to provide substantially identical protections as the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, she invites litigants to ask this court to invent constitutional rights: "[T]he lack of settled case law [discussing Article I, Section 1] should be encouraging to litigants. It is up to us—judges, lawyers, and citizens—to give effect to the fundamental guarantees of Article I, Section 1." As a pivotal part of her call for activism, Justice Dallet claims this court has embraced a "pluralistic approach" to constitutional interpretation in which this court "balance[s] the majority's values against the values that should be protected from society's majorities." Nothing could be further from the truth or more corrosive to our democratic form of government.

It is not for judges to superimpose their values on the constitution. The Wisconsin Constitution's text "is the very product of an interest balancing by the people," which judges cannot "conduct for them anew" in each case. The balance struck by the people of Wisconsin, as embodied in the constitution, "demands our unqualified deference." What the constitution does not say is as important as what it says. If the constitution itself does not bar majorities from passing certain laws, there is no lawful basis for judges to say otherwise. Nothing in the constitution authorizes judges to void laws that violate some judges' sense of what ought to be. There is a good reason jurists "seldom endorse[ ]" the views espoused by Justice Dallet openly: They contradict "the basic democratic theory of our government." …

Justice Jill Karofsky also concurred separately, sitting out the state constitutional law debate but arguing that the law, though constitutional under the federal constitution, was bad for children:

I agree with the majority that A.M.B.'s constitutional challenge merits rational basis review and that the challenged adoption statutes have a rational basis under the law. Rational basis review presents a low bar for the state to clear. We need only to conceive of a single rational connection between the statutes and a legitimate state interest in order for us to uphold the statutes' constitutionality. Here it is rational for the legislature to connect marriage to relationship longevity, then relationship longevity to household stability, and finally household stability to the child's best interest. Because there is a conceivable logic behind those connections, the statutes have a rational basis.

But in this case, the logical threads begin to shred under the weight of any sincere scrutiny. Here, we are left with the inescapable fact that the legally rational statutes prevented an adoption that all agree would have been in A.M.B.'s best interest. This incongruent outcome exemplifies the specious connection between the statutes and their stated goal of promoting a child's best interest. At first glance the connection may seem neatly knitted together; however, closer inspection reveals nothing more than a fraying tangle of dubious assumptions, circular reasoning, and outdated values that fail to reflect the practical realities of modern family life. I write separately to call out these three fraying threads that form an ever weakening connection between our adoption statutes and the goal of a child's best interest. I urge the legislature to reform the adoption restrictions so that they truly support the best interest of every child….

Children can and do thrive in families with single, unmarried, or married parents. This case is an excellent example of the second category. T.G. has, by all accounts, demonstrated dedication and commitment to A.M.B. over the past decade, and for her part A.M.B. reports that she views T.G. as a father figure. There is no dispute that adoption would be in A.M.B.'s best interest….