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In re Adoption of K.T.B.

In re Adoption of K.T.B., 2020 UT 51 (Durrant, C.J.) (Petersen, J., concurring in result) (Lee, A.C.J., dissenting)

Adoption

Adoptive parents petitioned to adopt KTB. Mother filed an answer to the petition instead of the required memorandum supporting intervention under section 110 of the Adoption Act. The district court excluded Mother from intervening on a procedural technicality. The adoption court also denied her rule 60(b) motion. Mother’s common-law-husband JN later filed a motion to intervene as presumptive father. The adoption court denied his motion as untimely. Mother appealed, arguing that the Utah Adoption Act as applied to her violated her due process rights. JN also appealed. The Utah Supreme Court agreed with Mother and reversed, holding:

  • The Adoption Act did not violate Mother’s procedural due process rights. It allowed her reasonable notice and an opportunity to be heard. It has, therefore, not foreclosed meaningful access to the justice system.
  • Section 110 of the Adoption Act violated Mother’s substantive due process rights because it is not narrowly tailored or necessary to achieve the state’s compelling interests in this case. Mothers retain a fundamental right in their children absent “a showing of unfitness, abandonment, or substantial neglect”—regardless of a failure to comply with any state-prescribed procedure. Where a procedural requirement infringes on a fundamental right, that requirement is constitutional only so long as it is narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest. Here, the court’s interest in barring improper parties from the proceedings was not hindered by the procedural deficiencies in Mother’s answer. Mother’s answer fulfilled the purposes of section 110, even if it was called something other than a memorandum. In light of Mother’s unquestioned status as KTB’s biological mother, the pleadings provided the district court with all of the information it needed to rule on the issue of Mother’s intervention. 
  • The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying JN’s motion to intervene. His motion was filed four months after adoptive parents filed their adoption petition, and it was therefore untimely. Because the common-law marriage was not legally recognized when the adoption petition was filed, JN was presumed to be on notice and should have filed a motion to intervene within thirty days of the date the adoptive parents filed their petition.
  • Concurrence: The court is breaking new ground by applying heightened scrutiny to a rule of preservation and should acknowledge why it is doing so in this case. The court should clarify the parameters of its holding. 
  • Dissent: Mother failed to object under the procedures set forth in section 110. Section 110 is a rule of preservation, prescribing the form of an objection necessary for a litigant to preserve a right. We cannot excuse a mother’s compliance with section 110 just because mothers are exempt from proving parentage. We should require a “specific showing of a precise interest” before establishing a new right of substantive due process. That showing requires more than just a tradition of respecting parental rights generally. To establish this new right the mother must establish a tradition of protecting parental rights despite a procedural default. Here, Mother did not show a “deeply rooted” history and tradition of a right to preserve parental rights despite non-compliance with the procedure required by law. The court’s authority for sidestepping section 110 does not follow from the due process caselaw it cites. The court’s holding today also introduces case-by-case scrutiny of whether our procedural rules are the “least restrictive means” of advancing “compelling governmental interests,” and under that rationale, almost any procedural default rule may be set aside as unconstitutional.

Read the full court opinion

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