Juvenile Court Lacked Jurisdiction to End Parental Rights and Order Adoption

The juvenile court terminated a mother’s parental rights, and ordered that her minor child be adopted by another couple. The court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to do either thing. The Court of Civil Appeals dismissed the mother’s appeal regarding her parental rights; and it ordered the juvenile court to vacate both orders. R.L. v. J.E.R., No. 2100050 (Ala. Civ. App. Mar. 25, 2011).

Prospective adoptive parents filed a petition in the probate court to adopt the mother’s minor child. The mother contested the adoption. The probate court transferred the case to juvenile court “for further disposition.” The juvenile court terminated the mother’s parental rights and then ordered the adoption.

The mother filed postjudgment motions challenging the termination of her parental rights. She moved to alter, amend, or vacate that judgment under Rule 59(e). She also moved to vacate the judgment under Rule 60(b)(4), arguing that the juvenile court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction, so that its termination order was void. The juvenile court did not rule on her motions. The Rule 59(e) motion was denied by operation of law. Motions under Rule 60(b), the Court of Civil Appeals reminded readers, are not subject to denial by operation of law; neither do they “affect the finality of a judgment or suspend its operation.” The mother’s eventual appeal thus was not premature and was timely.

The Court of Civil Appeals found that the juvenile court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter both the parental-rights and the adoption judgments. Because the child’s home state was Georgia, the juvenile court lacked jurisdiction to terminate the mother’s parental rights under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (Ala. Code §§ 30-3B-101 to -405). Its order was consequently void. Void orders will not support an appeal. The appellate court dismissed the mother’s appeal and ordered the juvenile court to vacate its order terminating the mother’s parental rights.

The adoption order met a similar end. The probate court had not effectively transferred jurisdiction over the adoption petition to the juvenile court. Under Ala. Code § 12-12-35, to transfer an adoption case from the probate to the district court, a party must move the probate court for such a transfer. No party had done this. The juvenile court thus lacked power to order an adoption, and its judgment doing so was void. The Court of Civil Appeals noticed this lack of jurisdiction on its own motion. It remanded the case for the juvenile court to vacate its adoption judgment.