CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
PartiesOREN ADAR, Individually and as Parent and Next Friend of J C A-S a minor; MICKEY RAY SMITH, Individually and as Parent and Next Friend of J C A-S a minor Plaintiffs - Appellees v. DARLENE W SMITH, In Her Capacity as State Registrar and Director, Office of Vital Records and Statistics, State of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Defendant - Appellant
Docket NumberNo. 09-30036,09-30036
Decision Date12 April 2011

OREN ADAR, Individually and as Parent and Next Friend of J C A-S a minor; MICKEY RAY SMITH,
Individually and as Parent and Next Friend of J C A-S a minor Plaintiffs - Appellees
DARLENE W SMITH, In Her Capacity as State Registrar and Director, Office of Vital Records
and Statistics, State of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Defendant - Appellant

No. 09-30036


April 12, 2011

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana


EDITH H. JONES, Chief Judge:

Mickey Smith and Oren Adar, two unmarried individuals, legally adopted Louisiana-born Infant J in New York in 2006. They sought to have Infant J's birth certificate reissued in Louisiana supplanting the names of his biological parents with their own. According to La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 40:76(A), the

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Registrar "may create a new record of birth" when presented with a properly certified out-of-state adoption decree. Subsection C states that the Registrar "shall make a new record . . . showing," inter alia, "the names of the adoptive parents." La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 40:76(C). Darlene Smith, the Registrar of Vital Records and Statistics, refused their request.1 The Registrar took the position that "adoptive parents" in section 40:76(C) means married parents, because in Louisiana, only married couples may jointly adopt a child. La. Child. Code Ann. art. 1221. She offered, however, to place one of Appellees' names on the birth certificate because Louisiana also allows a single-parent adoption. Smith and Adar sued the Registrar under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for declaratory and injunctive relief, asserting that her action denies full faith and credit to the New York adoption decree and equal protection to them and Infant J.

The district court ruled in favor of Smith and Adar on their full faith and credit claim. Following the Registrar's appeal, a panel of this court pretermitted the full faith and credit claim, concluding instead that Louisiana law, properly understood, required the Registrar to reissue the birth certificate. This panel opinion was vacated by our court's decision to rehear the case en banc. Adar v. Smith, 622 F.3d 426 (5th Cir. 2010).

This court must decide whether Appellees' claim for a reissued Louisiana birth certificate rests on the Constitution's full faith and credit clause or equal protection clause. Confusion has surrounded the characterization of Appellees' claims and their jurisdictional basis. Rather than parse the litigation history in detail, this discussion will demonstrate the following propositions:

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1. Appellees have standing to sue for themselves and/or Infant J;

2. The federal courts have jurisdiction to decide whether Appellees stated a claim remediable under § 1983 for violation of the full faith and credit clause;

3. Appellees' complaint does not state such a claim; and

4. Appellees have failed to state a claim that the Registrar's action denied them equal protection of the laws.

We REVERSE and REMAND for entry of a judgment of dismissal by the district court.


A. Justiciability

The Registrar initially contends that Appellees lack standing to sue and that the federal courts lack jurisdiction over the full faith and credit claim. The threshold justiciability questions are novel, but settled principles guide their resolution.

In order to establish standing, plaintiffs must show that (1) they have suffered an injury in fact, (2) a causal connection exists between the injury and challenged conduct, and (3) a favorable decision is likely to redress the injury. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61, 112 S. Ct. 2130, 2136 (1992); Bertulli v. Indep. Ass'n of Cont'l Pilots, 242 F.3d 290, 295 (5th Cir. 2001). We find Appellees have standing because they have been denied a revised birth certificate containing the names of both Smith and Adar as parents—the practical significance of which is undisputed—and through this action seek to redress the denial directly. Because standing does not depend upon ultimate success on the merits, Appellees are properly before this court. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S.

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490, 500, 95 S. Ct. 2197, 2206 (1975); Hanson v. Veterans Admin., 800 F.2d 1381, 1385 (5th Cir. 1986) ("It is inappropriate for the court to focus on the merits of the case when considering the issue of standing.").

Further, the court must assume jurisdiction to decide whether Appellees' complaint states a cause of action on which relief can be granted. Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 681-82, 66 S. Ct. 773, 776 (1946). Since the absence of a valid cause of action does not necessarily implicate subject-matter jurisdiction unless the claim "clearly appears to be immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining jurisdiction or where such a claim is wholly insubstantial and frivolous," Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 89, 118 S. Ct. 1003, 1010 (1998) (quoting Bell, 327 U.S. at 682-83, 66 S. Ct. at 776), we may determine whether plaintiffs have alleged an actionable claim under the full faith and credit clause. See Thompson v. Thompson, 484 U.S. 174, 178-79, 108 S. Ct. 513, 516 (1988) (affirming dismissal of full faith and credit suit for failure to state a claim).

B. Full Faith and Credit

The questions at issue are the scope of the full faith and credit clause and whether its violation is redressable in federal court in a § 1983 action.

Appellees contend that their claim arises under the full faith and credit clause, effectuated in federal law by 28 U.S.C. § 1738. The Constitution's Article IV, § 1 provides:

Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.

In pertinent part, the statute states:

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§ 1738. State and Territorial statutes and judicial proceedings; full faith and credit.

. . . .

Such Acts, records and judicial proceedings or copies thereof [of any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States], so authenticated, shall have the same full faith and credit in every court within the United States and its Territories and Possessions as they have by law or usage in the courts of such State, Territory or Possession from which they are taken.

28 U.S.C. § 1738.

Infant J was adopted in a court proceeding in New York state, as evidenced by a judicial decree. Appellees contend that Art. IV, § 1 and § 1738 oblige the Registrar to "recognize" their adoption of Infant J by issuing a revised birth certificate. The Registrar declined, however, to enforce the New York decree by altering Infant J's official birth records in a way that is inconsistent with Louisiana law governing reissuance. See La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 40:76; La. Child. Code Ann. arts. 1198, 1221. Appellees argue that either the Registrar's refusal to issue an amended birth certificate with both names on it, or the state law on which she relied, effectively denies them and their child "recognition" of the New York decree. Thus, the Registrar, acting under color of law, abridged rights created by the Constitution and laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

This train of reasoning is superficially appealing, but it cannot be squared with the Supreme Court's consistent jurisprudential treatment of the full faith and credit clause or with the lower federal courts' equally consistent approach. Simply put, the clause and its enabling statute created a rule of decision to govern the preclusive effect of final, binding adjudications from one state court

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or tribunal when litigation is pursued in another state or federal court. No more, no less. Because the clause guides rulings in courts, the "right" it confers on a litigant is to have a sister state judgment recognized in courts of the subsequent forum state. The forum's failure properly to accord full faith and credit is subject to ultimate review by the Supreme Court of the United States. Section 1983 has no place in the clause's orchestration of inter-court comity—state courts may err, but their rulings are not subject to declaratory or injunctive relief in federal courts.

Alternatively, even if the Supreme Court were inclined for the first time to find a claim of this sort cognizable under § 1983, the Registrar did not violate the clause by determining how to apply Louisiana's laws to maintain its vital statistics records. As the Supreme Court has clarified, "Enforcement measures do not travel with the . . . judgment." Baker v. Gen. Motors Corp., 522 U.S. 222, 235, 118 S. Ct. 657, 665 (1998). The Registrar concedes it is bound by the New York adoption decree, such that the parental relationship of Adar and Smith with Infant J cannot be relitigated in Louisiana. That point is not at issue here. There is no legal basis on which to conclude that failure to issue a revised birth certificate denies "recognition" to the New York adoption decree.

1. The full faith and credit clause imposes an obligation on courts to afford sister-state judgments res judicata effect.

To explain these conclusions, we begin with the history and purpose of the full faith and credit clause. Under the common law, the concept of "full faith and credit" related solely to judicial proceedings. In particular, "the terms 'faith' and 'credit' were generally drawn from the English law of evidence and employed to describe the admissibility and effect of items of proof." Ralph U. Whitten, The Original Understanding of the Full Faith and Credit Clause and the Defense of

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Marriage Act, 32 CREIGHTON L. REV. 255, 265 (1998). These terms were incorporated into the Constitution in...

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