OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday reversed the actions of two lower state courts, saying they were wrong to allow the adoption of a girl over the objections of her father in Ohio and faulting Nebraska's adoption laws for minimizing the rights of legal fathers.
The high court's ruling came in twin cases filed in separate Nebraska courts seeking to stop the adoption of a girl born in Ohio in 2013. Court records show the girl's mother and a man listed only as Jesse B. — who lived together briefly in Ohio — signed notarized legal documents in Ohio affirming Jesse as the girl's father.
Ten months later, Jesse received paperwork from a Nebraska attorney stating the mother intended to put the girl up for adoption and asking Jesse to relinquish his parental rights.
Jesse refused, but could not afford to immediately hire an attorney in Nebraska, and the adoption process proceeded in Douglas County Court. In June 2014, Jesse filed a complaint in Lancaster County District Court to stop the adoption, arguing that he was recognized as the girl's legal father in Ohio and that a Nebraska court could not permit the adoption without his consent. He also challenged several Nebraska adoption laws, arguing that they violate the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause because they give greater weight to the rights of married fathers over unmarried ones, as well as the rights of mothers over fathers.
Jesse also filed for custody in Ohio courts, but as that case was pending, the Douglas County Court finalized adoption of the girl, based on genetic testing that showed Jesse was not the biological father of the girl — even though Ohio had deemed him the legal father. The adoption drew criticism from the Ohio court that questioned "why this child was adopted in another jurisdiction when this matter has been pending since July 22, 2014."
Following the adoption, the Nebraska district court found it did not have jurisdiction in the case, because state law gives county courts jurisdiction over adoption proceedings.
The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday found fault with both courts, saying the county court failed by not recognizing Ohio's determination of Jesse's paternity. It said the district court was wrong to determine it didn't have jurisdiction to intervene in the lower court's decision.
Although the high court did not consider Jesse's constitutional challenges to Nebraska adoption laws, it offered stinging criticism of them.
"(W)e are sympathetic to the heartache that undoing these errors will cause the parties after this much time," Justice William Connolly wrote. "This situation is partially the result of Nebraska's statutes that encourage biological mothers to minimize the rights of legal fathers."
An attorney for Jesse, Jennifer Gaughan of Legal Aid of Nebraska, said her next order of business is to focus of securing custody of the girl for Jesse.
"We still have work to do in this case," she said.
An attorney for the adoptive parent did not immediately return a phone message Friday seeking comment.