The Alabama Supreme Court recently overturned an appeals court ruling favoring a Mobile man who’s been trying to obtain custody of his son since his ex-wife faked the child’s death to conceal his adoption.
Daniel Williams says he was initially under the impression his son Xander died shortly after birth. However, court records suggest he was misled in order to facilitate an adoption without giving Williams a chance to object.
When he discovered the truth, Williams challenged the adoption, which was pending before Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis. However, because he wasn’t married to Xander’s mother during her pregnancy, Williams had to also prove he had grounds to contest the adoption at all.
In Alabama, the Putative Father Registry Act provides a means for “alleged fathers” to claim their paternal rights, including the right to contest adoption. When Williams believed his son had died, he failed to sign the registry within the 30 days the law allows.
Those issues weren’t considered in the legal proceedings, however, because the focus instead was on Williams’ relationship to Xander’s mother during her pregnancy and whether it could have been considered a common-law marriage.
Based on the accessible court record, Davis wrote that he would consider any objection to the issues being covered, and even laid them out a second time on the first day of the trial saying, “I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page before we jump into the water and start swimming.”
As the trial was closing, Williams’ attorney “reasserted” one of his previous verbal arguments — suggesting it would be unconstitutional to deny the contest of the adoption because Williams showed a “commitment to fatherhood” prior to the Xander’s birth.
Court testimony suggests Williams covered some pre-birth medical expenses and participated in a public “gender reveal” for the child, but Davis also reminded Williams’ attorney throughout the trial that the court was only considering whether there ever was a common-law marriage.
Ultimately, Davis ruled Williams wasn’t in a common-law marriage to Xander’s mother and thus had no standing to contest the adoption — granting custody to the adopting parents, identified only as J.W.B and J.J.B.
Williams appealed Davis’ decision to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, which partially agreed with the local ruling. The judges found Williams did successfully argue that the attempts to conceal Xander’s adoption excused his failure to comply with the PFRA.
However, they concluded the trial court also failed in determining whether Williams “grasped his constitutionally protected opportunity interest” based on his behavior before and after Xander’s birth.
The case would have been sent back to Davis for reconsideration, but the adopting parents brought the appellate court’s decision to the Alabama Supreme Court first. They claimed Williams’ constitutional arguments were “too vague and ambiguous” to have been considered.
An appellate court can only review an argument preserved from the original trial, and in the appeal to the Supreme Court, the adopting parents’ attorney argued the constitutional claims were never successfully raised before the probate court in Mobile.
The Supreme Court agreed, and in a 4-3 vote the majority concluded the appeals court had ruled in Williams’ favor based on arguments that didn’t meet that burden.
As a result, the Court of Civil Appeals was instructed to reconsider the case in a manner “consistent” with the Supreme Court’s opinion. Although the majority of justices agreed, the dissenting opinion came with strong criticism from Justice Glenn Murdock.
Murdock not only wrote that Williams successfully preserved his constitutional argument, he also took issue with those who petitioned for the adoption inaccurately claiming the father was “unknown.”
“Not only do his actions confirm [the father’s intentions], but the mother’s actions in concocting her deceit as to the child’s death confirms that she believed the father was seriously interested in pursuing his relationship with his child and would not be in favor of the adoption,” Murdock wrote. “And, though I am not at all suggesting the adoptive parents share the mother’s guilt as to the fraud she committed against the father, the adoptive parents nevertheless knew that the father was not ‘unknown’ when they filed their petition.”
Murdock called facts presented before the probate court “deeply troubling,” and said Xander’s adoption was made possible by “a conspiracy of silence” and “the use of the state court system to help defraud this known father.”
“If what the father in this case received represents due process of law, then I submit not much process is due,” he wrote.
Though the dissent was impassioned, the adopting parents’ attorney, David Broom, called some of Murdock’s comments “unfair,” and said it was highly unusual those constitutional issues were even considered during the first appeal.
Broom took over for attorney Donna Ames to represent the adoptive couple during Williams’ challenge to the adoption, and when asked about the constitutional claims said those issues “just weren’t part of the trial.”
“Judge Davis was clear in his orders and from the bench that we were there because the only theory advanced was whether there was common-law marriage,” Broom said. “There was plenty of opportunities to articulate and preserve those constitutional issues.”
Broom said his clients weren’t aware the child’s mother had lied to the birth father about his child’s death. However, he said adjusting Alabama’s adoption code to prevent a similar case in in the future would be something the Legislature would have to address.
“The facts in this case are brought out and people are taken aback, but what I wanted everybody to understand is it’s a prerogative of the Legislature to enact a fraud exception to the Putative Father Registry statute,” Broom said. “If people are concerned, there should be an effort to amend the legislation.”
The Putative Father Registry law in Alabama was actually written by Alabama Supreme Court Justice Michael F. Bolin. While Bolin recused himself from considering Williams’ case, justices are not required to give a reason for their recusal.