In re Adoption of M.A., Docket: Cum-06-453.

CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
Citation2007 ME 123,930 A.2d 1088
Docket NumberDocket: Cum-06-453.
PartiesAdoption of M.A et al.
Decision Date30 August 2007
930 A.2d 1088
2007 ME 123
Adoption of M.A et al.
Docket: Cum-06-453.
Supreme Judicial Court of Maine.
Submitted On Briefs: February 27, 2007.
Decided: August 30, 2007.

[930 A.2d 1089]

Mary L. Bonauto, Esq., Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Boston, MA, Judith M. Berry, Esq., Gorham, Patricia A. Peard, Esq., Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson, P.A., Portland, for appellants.

Donna A. Bailey, Esq., Moulton, Forte & Bailey, P.A., Wells, Guardian ad Litem.

G. Steven Rowe, Attorney General, Gregg D. Bernstein, Asst. Atty. Gen., Janice S. Stuver, Asst. Atty. Gen., Matthew Pollack, Asst. Atty. Gen., Augusta, (for State of Maine Office of the Attorney General), Michael P. Asen, Esq., Mittel Asen

[930 A.2d 1090]

LLC, Portland, Of counsel: Paul H. Smith, Esq., William M. Hohengarten, Esq., Eric Berger, Esq., Jenner & Block LLP, Nathalie F.P. Golfoyle, Esq., American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C., (for American Psychological Association, Maine Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers and its Maine Chapter; Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians, Child Welfare League of America, Maine Children's Alliance, Maine Medical Association American Academy of Pediatrics Maine Chapter, Even B. Donaldson Adoption Inst., Kids First, and Community Counseling Center), for amici curiae.



[¶ 1] A.C. and M.K. appeal from the judgment of the Cumberland County Probate Court (Mazziotti, J.) dismissing their joint petitions for adoption and name change as to their foster children, M.A. and R.A.1 A.C. and M.K. contend that the court erred in concluding that it lacks jurisdiction, pursuant to 18-A M.R.S. § 9-301 (2006), to consider joint petitions for adoption filed by two unmarried individuals. Because we conclude that the court has jurisdiction and the petitions are not otherwise barred by section 9-301, we vacate the court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.


[¶ 2] The petitions allege the following facts, which are presumed to be true for the purposes of the pending appeals. In early 2001, A.C. and M.K., an unmarried, same-sex couple, became foster parents to the minor children and biological siblings, M.A. and R.A. At the time, M.A. was one week shy of her fourth birthday and R.A. was four months old. The Department of Health and Human Services received the custody of the children as a result of a jeopardy order entered in a child protection proceeding in the District Court (Biddeford, Foster, J.). The parental rights of the children's birth parents were subsequently terminated by the court with their consent. Both children have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, reactive attachment disorder, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

[¶ 3] Nearly two years after the children came into the Department's custody, A.C. and M.K. applied to the Department to adopt the children. An independent home study was completed in early 2006 as required by 18-A M.R.S. § 9-304(a-1) (2006). The home study report recommended that A.C. and M.K. be approved to jointly adopt the children, concluding that:

[A.C. and M.K.] are able to parent children with moderate to severe special needs that include attachment disorders, mental illness, ADHD/ADD, learning disabilities and delays. They are able to parent children who require a wide range of services and may not live independently as ... adult[s].

[¶ 4] The children's court-appointed guardian ad litem recommended in favor of the adoption, concluding that "[h]aving two legal parents forever will clearly be in the children's best interests." The Department's adoption worker and adoption supervisor responsible for the children also issued reports strongly supporting the adoptions, recommending that the adoptions "be legalized as soon as possible to provide [each child] with the security that only permanence can provide." In April

930 A.2d 1091

2006, the Department, acting through its Commissioner, consented to the joint adoption of both children by A.C. and M.K.

[¶ 5] A.C. and M.K. filed two petitions for adoption in the Cumberland County Probate Court in May 2006: one to jointly adopt M.A., and the other to jointly adopt R.A. The court ordered the two petitions consolidated pursuant to M.R. Prob. P. 42(a). The following month, the court denied the petitions in a written order that simply stated that each was "denied for lack of jurisdiction pursuant to 18-A M.R.S.A. [§ ] 9-301," without addressing the merits of the petitions. Section 9-301 provides: "A husband and wife jointly or an unmarried person, resident or nonresident of the State, may petition the Probate Court to adopt a person, regardless of age, and to change that person's name." 18-A M.R.S. § 9-301 (2006). These appeals followed. The Attorney General, as well as several organizations and associations,2 submitted briefs as amici curiae pursuant to M.R.App. P. 9(e)(1).


[¶ 6] The Probate Court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to consider A.C. and M.K.'s joint petitions to adopt M.A. and R.A. based on the language of section 9-301. We review the Probate Court's rulings on questions of law de novo. See Estate of Colburn, 2006 ME 125, ¶ 14, 909 A.2d 214, 218. The term "jurisdiction" refers to "`prescriptions delineating the classes of cases (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the persons (personal jurisdiction) falling within a court's adjudicatory authority." ' Landmark Realty v. Leasure, 2004 ME 85, ¶ 7, 853 A.2d 749, 750 (quoting Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455, 124 S.Ct. 906, 157 L.Ed.2d 867 (2004)).

[¶ 7] In the present case, the Probate Court has personal jurisdiction over the petitioners and the children they seek to adopt. A.C., M.K., and the children have resided continuously in Maine since R.A.'s birth in 2000. The Probate Court also has exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over adoption petitions. See 4 M.R.S. § 251 (2006) (providing that a judge of probate has jurisdiction "to grant leave to adopt children"); 18-A M.R.S. § 9-103(a)(1) (2006) (granting exclusive jurisdiction over adoption petitions). Regardless of whether the adoption petitions filed in this case may be filed individually or jointly, that procedural issue does not affect the Probate Court's subject-matter jurisdiction.

[¶ 8] Because the Probate Court has personal jurisdiction over the parties and the children, and subject-matter jurisdiction to act on petitions for adoption, the Probate Court erred in dismissing the petitions for lack of jurisdiction. However, to the extent the Probate Court inferred that a joint petition by unmarried persons is prohibited by section 9-301, we must still determine whether a joint petition for adoption filed by two unmarried persons is procedurally barred because the statute addresses joint petitions only in connection with a husband and wife, but not in connection with two unmarried persons. Cf. Mason v. City of Augusta, 2007 ME 101, ¶ 15, 927 A.2d 1146, 1150 (addressing whether a complaint stated a claim upon which relief can be granted after concluding that the trial court improperly dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction).

930 A.2d 1092

A. The Plain Meaning of Section 9-301

[¶ 9] In construing a statute, we look first to its plain meaning. See City of Bangor v. Penobscot County, 2005 ME 35, ¶ 9, 868 A.2d 177, 180. In addition, we do not read exceptions, limitations, or conditions into an otherwise clear and unambiguous statute. See Kimball v. Land Use Regulation Comm'n, 2000 ME 20, ¶ 18, 745 A.2d 387, 392; see also In re K.M., 274 Ill.App.3d 189, 210 Ill.Dec. 693, 653 N.E.2d 888, 892 (1995).

[¶ 10] The petitioners and the Attorney General both assert that section 9-301 is clear and unambiguous. They observe that the statute does not expressly prohibit two unmarried persons from jointly petitioning to adopt a child. The petitioners urge us to treat the statute's language permitting a petition to adopt by a "husband and wife jointly" as functioning solely as a restriction on petitions brought by married persons. They note that other jurisdictions have construed similar statutes on this basis and have recognized that the purpose of requiring a married person to join his or her spouse to an adoption petition is "specific to the marital relationship and its attendant legal obligations." In re Infant Girl W., 845 N.E.2d 229, 242-43 (Ind.Ct.App.2006), transfer denied sub nom. In re Adoption of M.W., 851 N.E.2d 961 (Ind.2006); see also In re M.M.D., 662 A.2d 837, 848 (D.C.1995); Adoption of Tammy, 416 Mass. 205, 619 N.E.2d 315, 318 n. 3 (1993); In re Jacob, 86 N.Y.2d 651, 636 N.Y.S.2d 716, 660 N.E.2d 397, 400 (1995).

[¶ 11] In support of their view that the statute is unambiguous, the petitioners also cite the statutory rule of construction, stated in 1 M.R.S. § 71(9) (2006), that "[w]ords of the singular number may include the plural; and words of the plural number may include the singular." If applied to section 9-301, the statute's reference to petitions by "an unmarried person" includes the plural "unmarried persons." We perceive two problems, however, with resting a reading of section 9-301 squarely on the rule of construction stated in section 71(9).

[¶ 12] First, the rule stated in section 71(9) does not apply if the resulting construction "is inconsistent with the plain meaning of the enactment." 1 M.R.S. § 71 (2006). A reasonable argument can be made, counter to that advanced by the petitioners, that because section 9-301 mentions joint petitions only in connection with married persons, the plain meaning of the statute is that joint petitions are permitted to be filed only by married persons. In addition, even if the rule is determined to be applicable, it cannot be applied to produce a result that is contrary to the adoption statute's purpose or design. Accordingly, contrary to the petitioner's...

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