In re Atws, S-20-0184

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
Writing for the CourtBOOMGAARDEN, Justice.
Parties In the MATTER OF the ADOPTION OF: ATWS, Minor Child, KA, Appellant (Petitioner).
Decision Date05 May 2021
Docket NumberS-20-0184

486 P.3d 158

In the MATTER OF the ADOPTION OF: ATWS, Minor Child, KA, Appellant (Petitioner).

S-20-0184

Supreme Court of Wyoming.

May 5, 2021


Representing Appellant: Stacy L. Rostad, Laramie, Wyoming.

Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, JJ., and FENN, DJ.

BOOMGAARDEN, Justice.

¶1] Presented a unique adoption scenario, the district court denied KA's unopposed Petition for Adoption of Minor Child pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-22-101 et seq. (LexisNexis 2019). Narrowly construing § 1-22-104(b), it concluded KA did not qualify to file an adoption petition because he is married and thus not a "single adult," he did not jointly file to adopt the Child with his current wife, and his current wife is not the Child's mother—his ex-wife is. Construing § 1-22-104(b) in harmony with the purpose of the Wyoming adoption statutes and in pari materia with § 1-22-103, we reverse and remand.

ISSUE

[¶2] Do the adoption statutes prohibit KA from adopting the Child?

FACTS

[¶3] KA seeks to adopt his ex-wife's son (the Child). When KA and the Child's mother, BLS, began dating in 2008, the Child was five months old; his natural father was absent. KA immediately stepped in and developed a father/son relationship with the Child. KA and BLS married, divorced, and remarried other people, but continue "coparenting" the Child. KA refers to the Child as his son, the Child refers to KA as "Dad," and BLS refers to KA as her son's father.

[¶4] The Child lives with BLS and her spouse in Casper, Wyoming. KA, who lives in Douglas, Wyoming with his spouse, is very involved in the Child's life. He attends school meetings and activities, takes the Child to medical appointments, and confers with BLS on matters affecting the Child's well-being. The Child regularly spends time with KA, including on many weekends, on alternating holidays and school breaks, and for half of summer break. The Child has a sibling relationship with KA's biological son and KA's extended family considers the Child part of their family. Until recently, the Child believed KA was his biological father. On learning

[486 P.3d 160

otherwise, the Child requested KA adopt him.

¶5] In December 2019, KA filed an unopposed petition to adopt the Child in the District Court for the Seventh Judicial District. The petition reiterated many of the facts recited above, but added some information pertinent to this appeal. First, BLS consents to the adoption. Second, the Child's biological father, who lives in North Dakota, signed a relinquishment and consent to adoption; a petition to terminate his parental rights was pending. Third, KA is of good moral character and fit and proper to adopt. He could continue to provide proper care, nurturing, and parenting to the Child. KA attached his affidavit pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-22-104, along with BLS's consent to adoption, to the petition.

[¶6] In March 2020, the same court entered an order terminating the natural father's parental rights. The father failed to answer, plead, or defend the matter, and consented to the termination. The court found by clear and convincing evidence that the Child had been left in another person's care without provision for his support and without communication from the absent parent for at least one year. The natural father had not seen or interacted with the Child since the Child was a baby, and it was in the Child's best interests to terminate his parental rights.

[¶7] The court denied KA's adoption petition that July. Though it empathized with the reasons for the requested adoption, the court felt constrained—absent clarification from the legislature or this Court—to strictly construe the adoption statutes and concluded that KA failed to establish that he qualified to adopt the Child under the plain language of § 1-22-104(b). The court also doubted whether BLS could retain her parental rights if KA adopted the Child. It identified In re Adoption of I.M. , 48 Kan.App.2d 343, 288 P.3d 864 (2012) as "an example of a Kansas court that applied Kansas statutes to similar circumstances and reached a similar conclusion." KA timely appealed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶8] Statutory interpretation and construction are questions of law we review de novo. Matter of Adoption of MAJB , 2020 WY 157, ¶¶ 9, 13, 478 P.3d 196, 200–01 (Wyo. 2020) (citations omitted); see also In re Estate of Kirkpatrick , 2003 WY 125, ¶ 6, 77 P.3d 404, 406 (Wyo. 2003).

[¶9] "When interpreting statutes, we first look to the statute's plain language to determine the legislature's intent and we examine the plain and ordinary meaning of the words to determine whether the statute is ambiguous." Matter of Estate of Frank , 2019 WY 4, ¶ 7, 432 P.3d 885, 887 (Wyo. 2019) (citing In re Estate of Meyer , 2016 WY 6, ¶ 17, 367 P.3d 629, 634 (Wyo. 2016) ); see also Interest of: AA , 2021 WY 18, ¶ 17, 479 P.3d 1252, 1258 (Wyo. 2021) ("When interpreting ... statute[s] and [their] application, we first look at the plain language used by the legislature." (citation omitted)). "We construe the statute as a whole, giving effect to every word, clause, and sentence, and we construe all parts of the statute in pari materia ." Estate of Frank , ¶ 7, 432 P.3d at 887 (quoting In re Estate of Johnson , 2010 WY 63, ¶ 8, 231 P.3d 873, 877 (Wyo. 2010) ).

[¶10] "A statute is clear and unambiguous if reasonable persons can agree on its meaning with consistency and predictability." Id. ¶ 8, 432 P.3d at 887 (citing Estate of Meyer , ¶ 17, 367 P.3d at 634 ).

"Conversely, a statute is ambiguous if it is found to be vague or uncertain and subject to varying interpretations." Id. (quoting Estate of Meyer , ¶ 17, 367 P.3d at 634 ). "If we determine the language of a statute is ambiguous, we apply general principles of statutory construction ‘to construe any ambiguous language to accurately reflect the intent of the legislature.’ " Id. (quoting Estate of Meyer , ¶ 21, 367 P.3d at 636 ).

[¶11] "Where legislative intent is discernible a court should give effect to the ‘most likely, most reasonable, interpretation of the statute given its design and purpose.’ " Adekale v. State , 2015 WY 30, ¶ 12, 344 P.3d 761, 765 (Wyo. 2015) (quoting Rodriguez v. Casey , 2002 WY 111, ¶ 20, 50 P.3d 323, 329 (Wyo. 2002) ). As we have said before, "it is

[486 P.3d 161

one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence ... to remember that the statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning." Id. ¶ 13, 344 P.3d at 765 (quoting Cabell v. Markham , 148 F.2d 737, 739 (2d Cir. 1945), judgment aff'd , 326 U.S. 404, 66 S.Ct. 193, 90 L.Ed. 165 (1945) ); 2A Sutherland on Statutory Construction § 45:9 (7th ed.) (database updated Nov. 2020).

DISCUSSION

[¶12] After the district court denied KA's petition and while this appeal was pending, we issued a decision identifying some important principles and distinctions we must heed when construing Wyoming's adoption statutes.

We have had many opportunities to construe Wyoming's adoption statutes in the context of fundamental rights or statutory procedure. "The right to associate with one's child is protected by both the Wyoming and United States constitutions, therefore adoption statutes are ‘strictly construed when the proceeding is against a nonconsenting parent , and every reasonable [inference] is made in favor of that parent's claims.’ " Matter of Adoption of ZEM , 2020 WY 17, ¶ 11, 458 P.3d 21, 24 (Wyo. 2020) (quoting In re Adoption of AMP , 2012 WY 132, ¶ 11, 286 P.3d 746, 749 (Wyo. 2012) ); see also Matter of Adoption of CJML , 2020 WY 23, ¶ 7, 458 P.3d 53, 55 (Wyo. 2020) (same). "It is appropriate, therefore, to construe adoption statutes narrowly insofar as a case involves such fundamental constitutional rights as parenthood and the right to procreate." 2 C.J.S. Adoption of Persons § 7, Westlaw (database updated November 2020); In re CW , 2008 WY 50, ¶ 8, 182 P.3d 501, 503–04 (Wyo. 2008) ("[A]doption statutes are strictly construed when the proceeding is against a nonconsenting parent, and every reasonable intendment is made in favor of the parent's claims." (quoting In re Adoption of JRH , 2006 WY 89, ¶ 13, 138 P.3d 683, 686 (Wyo. 2006) )). However, "[A]doption statutes are not to be construed so narrowly or strictly as to defeat the legislative intent." 2 C.J.S. Adoption of Persons § 7.

We have said that "[a] statute must be viewed in terms of its objective purpose." Halliburton Co. v. McAdams, Roux & Assocs. , 773 P.2d 153, 155 (Wyo. 1989). The purpose "of the adoption laws is to make provision for the welfare of children, [and] the better rule is to construe adoption statutes in a manner which will promote this purpose." Matter of Adoption of BGD , 719 P.2d 1373, 1382 (Wyo. 1986) ; see also 3A J.G. Sutherland, Statutes and Statutory Construction § 69:4, at 713 (8th ed. 2018) (Remedial statutes, such as adoption laws, are "enacted for the protection of life and property and to introduce regulations conducive to the public good."); Wright v. Wysowatcky , 147 Colo. 317, 363 P.2d 1046, 1048 (1961) ("While courts were formerly inclined to regard adoption statutes as in derogation of the common law and therefore to be strictly construed, the humanitarian purposes of such statutes came to be recognized, and courts generally have evinced a disposition to afford them a more liberal construction."); Matter of
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  • Orosco v. State (In re U.S. Currency Totaling $14,245.00), S-21-0152
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • January 31, 2022
    ...questions of statutory interpretation, which are questions of law that we consider de novo. Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶ 8, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) (citing Matter of Adoption of MAJB , 2020 WY 157, ¶¶ 9, 13, 478 P.3d 196, 200-01 (Wyo. 2020) ).DISCUSSION [¶8] The question......
  • Holding v. Luckinbill, S-21-0108
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • January 24, 2022
    ...73. [¶13] "Statutory interpretation and construction are questions of law reviewed de novo." Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶ 8, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) ; see also In re Est. of Kirkpatrick , 2003 WY 125, ¶ 6, 77 P.3d 404, 406 (Wyo. 2003) ; [503 P.3d 17 In re Est. of Meyer ,......
  • Roman v. State, S-21-0178
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • April 6, 2022
    ...we consider de novo." Rosen v. State , 2022 WY 16, ¶ 7, 503 P.3d 41, 44 (Wyo. 2022) (citing Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶ 8, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) ).DISCUSSION [¶11] Mr. Roman challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction of possession of marijuan......
  • Archer v. Mills, S-20-0192
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • June 30, 2021
    ...plain and ordinary meaning of the words to determine whether the statute is ambiguous. Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶¶ 9–10, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) ; In re Est. of Meyer , 2016 WY 6, ¶ 17, 367 P.3d 629, 634 (Wyo. 2016) ; see also Int. of: AA , 2021 WY 18, ¶ 17, 479 P.3d 1......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
10 cases
  • Orosco v. State (In re U.S. Currency Totaling $14,245.00), S-21-0152
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • January 31, 2022
    ...questions of statutory interpretation, which are questions of law that we consider de novo. Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶ 8, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) (citing Matter of Adoption of MAJB , 2020 WY 157, ¶¶ 9, 13, 478 P.3d 196, 200-01 (Wyo. 2020) ).DISCUSSION [¶8] The question......
  • Holding v. Luckinbill, S-21-0108
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • January 24, 2022
    ...73. [¶13] "Statutory interpretation and construction are questions of law reviewed de novo." Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶ 8, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) ; see also In re Est. of Kirkpatrick , 2003 WY 125, ¶ 6, 77 P.3d 404, 406 (Wyo. 2003) ; [503 P.3d 17 In re Est. of Meyer ,......
  • Roman v. State, S-21-0178
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • April 6, 2022
    ...we consider de novo." Rosen v. State , 2022 WY 16, ¶ 7, 503 P.3d 41, 44 (Wyo. 2022) (citing Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶ 8, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) ).DISCUSSION [¶11] Mr. Roman challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction of possession of marijuan......
  • Archer v. Mills, S-20-0192
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • June 30, 2021
    ...plain and ordinary meaning of the words to determine whether the statute is ambiguous. Matter of Adoption of ATWS , 2021 WY 62, ¶¶ 9–10, 486 P.3d 158, 160 (Wyo. 2021) ; In re Est. of Meyer , 2016 WY 6, ¶ 17, 367 P.3d 629, 634 (Wyo. 2016) ; see also Int. of: AA , 2021 WY 18, ¶ 17, 479 P.3d 1......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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