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Federal Court Orders State Department to Recognize Birthright Citizenship of Child Born Overseas to Married Gay Male Couple Through Gestational Surrogacy

Posted on: August 29th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

A U.S. District Judge in Georgia issued a ruling on August 27 that a married male couple’s daughter, conceived through donor insemination from a donated egg with an English woman serving as gestational surrogate, should be deemed a natural-born U.S. citizen and entitled to a passport over the objections of the State Department.  The complication in this case is that the spouse whose sperm was used was not a U.S. citizen at the time, although he since has become one through the marriage to his native-born U.S. citizen husband.

If this sounds familiar, it is because the case of Mize v. Pompeo, 2020 WL 5059253, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156121 (N.D. Ga., Aug. 27, 2020), presents issues similar to those in Kiviti v. Pompeo, 2020 WL 3268221 (D. Md. June 17, 2020), decided a few months earlier by a federal court in Maryland, which also ordered the State Department to recognize the birthright citizenship of the child of a married gay couple.

This is a recurring problem encountered by married gay male couples who use a foreign surrogate to have their child overseas.

Under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, all persons born in the United States are citizens at birth, regardless of the nationality or citizenship status of their parents.  By statute and court decision, the only people born in the U.S. who are not citizens at birth are children born to foreign diplomats stationed in the U.S. or temporary tourist or business visitors.  The citizenship of children born overseas to U.S. citizens is determined by a statute, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Under the INA, there is a crucial distinction depending whether the child’s U.S. citizen parents are married to each other when the child is born.  One provision concerns the overseas children of married U.S. citizens, and a different provision applies if the children are born “out of wedlock.”  As interpreted by the State Department, if the parents are married, the child is a birthright citizen so long as it is biologically related to one of them.  If the parents are not married, at least one them who is biologically related to the child must be a United States citizen who has resided in the U.S. for at least five years.

In this case, James Mize, a native-born U.S. citizen, and Jonathan Gregg, a British native, met when Gregg moved to the U.S. in 2014 and they subsequently married.  They then decided to have a child together, and a British woman who was a friend of the couple agreed to be the gestational surrogate.  They obtained an anonymously donated egg which was fertilized in vitro with Jonathan’s sperm, implanted in their friend, who bore the child in England in 2018.  The local authorities issued a birth certificate recognizing the two men as the parents of the child, identified in court papers as SM-G.  The men had moved to England before the child was conceived.  After she was born, they applied for a U.S. passport and citizenship declaration, but the State Department refused to provide it.  The Department treated the child as if she was born out of wedlock, since her biological parents were not married to each other, and found that her biological father, Gregg, had not resided in the United States as a citizen long enough to confer birthright citizenship on her.  Mize is not her biological parent, so the Department was unwilling to recognize birthright citizenship based on Mize’s natural-born citizenship status.

These rules have proved to be a recurring issue for gay male couples who go out of the country to have children through surrogacy, as it has generated several lawsuits, and the State Department, while losing individual cases, has not modified its interpretation of the statute. Unsurprisingly, the Trump Administration has filed appeals of prior cases and there is no definite appellate interpretation yet.

Mize and Gregg sued the State Department, claiming that the denial of the passport and citizenship declaration for their daughter violated their 5th Amendment constitutional rights, violated the INA, and also violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Meanwhile, however, because of the citizenship status eventually acquired by Gregg through his marriage to Mize, their daughter ultimately acquired naturalized citizenship as the minor child of a naturalized citizen while this case was pending, and is living with the couple in Georgia.  In addition to refusing to change its interpretation of the INA and moving for summary judgment as to that, the State Department also suggested that the case should be dismissed as moot, since the child now has a U.S. passport as a “naturalized” citizen by derivation from her biological father.

U.S. District Judge Michael Brown rejected the mootness argument before turning to the merits of the case in his August 27 opinion.  He said that the dignitary harm suffered by the men in their marriage being deemed irrelevant for the purpose of their daughter’s citizenship status at birth kept this case from being moot.

On the merits, Judge Brown pointed out that as a matter of constitutional law, under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 and Pavan v. Smith in 2017, same-sex marriages are supposed to be treated the same as opposite sex marriages for all purposes of law.  They are entitled to the same rights and have the same responsibilities. However, if the INA can be interpreted to treat their daughter as a child “of the marriage,” then the provision concerning the children of married U.S. citizens would apply and there would be no requirement that the child be biologically related to both parents to be a birthright citizen, and the court would not have to address the constitutional issues.

Judge Brown found that the INA does not define what a child “of the marriage” is, leaving an ambiguity because the statutory language can be interpreted in more than one way.  If the language is interpreted as the State Department insists, he found that would raise constitutional issues under the 5th Amendment.   Federal courts apply a doctrine of “constitutional avoidance.”  They avoid having to decide questions about the constitutionality of a statute or its interpretation by the government if there is a reasonable way to interpret the statutory language to make the constitutional issues go away.

In this case, Judge Brown, in line with several prior district court decisions, concluded that such an interpretation is possible.  The Mize-Gregg marriage is valid and must be recognized by the State Department, and the process by which Mize and Gregg decided to have a child through gestational surrogacy and carried out their plan supports the argument that SM-G is a child “of” their marriage in a practical sense.  Thus, the court concluded, she was not born “out of wedlock,” and the requirement that she be biologically related to as U.S. parent with sufficient duration of residency under the “out of wedlock” provision would not apply.

Judge Brown granted summary judgment to Mize and Gregg as a matter of statutory interpretation, rendering it unnecessary to decide the constitutional questions, and he ordered the State Department to issue the documents for which the men had applied.  He dismissed the Administrative Procedure Act claim as moot.

The State Department could decide to appeal this ruling, which would be consistent with the Trump Administration’s general tendency to fall in line with efforts by Christian conservatives to chip away at the legal status of same-sex marriages.  Unsurprisingly, the Department filed an appeal of the Kiviti decision in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 14, but in the normal course of things that appeal will probably not be argued for several months and a decision would be unlikely until sometime next year at the earliest.  Meanwhile, the Trump Administration could consistently file an appeal in this case to “protect” its position about how to interpret the statute.

If Joe Biden is elected president, it is possible that the State Department would decide to protect the rights of same-sex couples and their children by revising the Foreign Affairs Manual to adopt an interpretation consistent with  the court’s rulings for the guidance of U.S. consulates and embassies that receive these sorts of applications when children are born to U.S. citizens overseas.

Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal are representing Mize and Gregg, as they are also representing the plaintiffs in the Kiviti case.

N.Y. Appellate Division Applies New Precedent to Find Standing for Gay Dad Seeking Custody

Posted on: September 14th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

In what may be the first application of the recent New York Court of Appeals decision, Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 2016 N.Y. Slip Op 05903 (August 30, 2016), which adopted a new definition of “parent” for purposes of the state’s Domestic Relations Law so as to account for cases of same-sex couples raising children, the New York Appellate Division, 2nd Department, based in Brooklyn, ruled on September 6 that a gay man who was parenting twin children conceived through in vitro fertilization using his same-sex partner’s sperm, had standing to seek custody of the children after the men split up.  The case, In re Anonymous, 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5833, had an interesting additional wrinkle, in that the plaintiff is the biological uncle of the children, because his sister served as the surrogate for their gestation and birth.  In a separate opinion issued on the same date, 2016 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 5834, the court rejected a challenge to the parental standing of the surrogate and upheld the temporary award of visitation to the co-parent while the case was pending.

The two cases consolidated in the Brooke S.B. ruling involved lesbian couples who had their children through donor insemination of one of the partners.  This new ruling extends that case to a situation where the birth mother, a surrogate, is still the legal parent of the children, and the dispute is between the father who donated the sperm used to conceive the children and his former partner, whose sister bore them.

The two men, identified in the court’s opinion by their first names as Joseph P. and Frank G., lived together in New York State from 2009 through February 2014, but did not marry when same-sex marriage became possible in New York.  They wanted to raise children together who would be genetically related to both of them, so Joseph took advantage of a long-standing promise by his sister, Renee, who had her own children, that she would bear children for her brother once he met his “life partner.”  Their understanding was that the two men would be the children’s parents, and that Renee would have a continuing role in the lives of any children resulting from this process.

The three adults executed a written surrogacy agreement in which Renee agreed to become pregnant using Frank’s sperm and to surrender her rights as a biological mother so that Joseph could adopt the resulting child or children.  They used an in vitro fertilization process (“test tube babies”), in which it is customary to implant more than one fertilized egg to ensure a successful conception.  Renee bore fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, in February 2010.  It is likely that Frank and Renee were listed on the twins’ birth certificates as the parents, but the court’s opinion does not mention this subject.

For the first four years after Renee gave birth, Joseph and Frank raised the children together, sharing parental rights and responsibilities, and the children regarded both of them as their parents.  They called Joseph “dada” and Frank “dad.”  The court’s opinion doesn’t say what they called Renee, but it does say that she frequently saw them.

Joseph and Frank separated early in 2014.  The children continued to live with Frank, but Joseph visited and cared for them “daily,” according to the court’s opinion, until May 2014.   Then Frank suddenly cut off contact between Joseph or Renee and the children.  In December 2014, Frank moved to Florida with the children, without giving any notice to Joseph or Renee, and without seeking permission from the court.  Although Renee had agreed in the surrogacy agreement to give up any claim of parental rights in order for Joseph to be able to adopt the children, they had never taken that step of adoption, so her parental rights had not been legally terminated.  Frank did not seek court permission to remove the children from the state, which would normally be required since he did not have permission from Renee, their legal mother.

After Frank’s move, Renee filed an action in the Family Court seeking custody of the children as their biological mother, and Joseph filed an action petitioning to be appointed their legal guardian.  Since the New York Court of Appeals had then recently reaffirmed its 1991 ruling, Alison D. v. Virginia M., 77 N.Y.2d 651, under which a person in Joseph’s position would not have standing to seek custody, a guardianship appointment would be the next best thing.  However, in June 2015 Joseph reconsidered his position, withdrew the guardianship petition, and filed his own action seeking custody as a de facto parent.

Frank then filed a motion to throw out Joseph’s case, relying on Alison D.’s definition of “parent” as being limited to a biological or adoptive parent, but Orange County Family Court Judge Lori Currier Woods denied the motion, and Frank appealed.  The appellate court’s opinion does not describe Judge Woods’ reasoning for denying Frank’s motion.

In its unanimous September 6 ruling, the panel of Justices L. Priscilla Hall, Jeffrey A. Cohen, Robert J. Miller and Betsy Barros noted that while this appeal was pending, the Court of Appeals had decided Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., overruling the Alison D. decision and adopting a new definition of “parent.”  The Court of Appeals said that the old definition had “become unworkable when applied to increasingly varied familial relationships.”  Under the new definition, a partner of a biological parent will have standing to seek custody if the partner “shows by clear and convincing evidence that the parties agreed to conceive a child and to raise the child together.” 

In this case, testimony about the verbal agreement between the men was bolstered by the written surrogacy agreement between the men and Renee.  This is ironic, since under New York Law the surrogacy agreement is itself against public policy and unenforceable in court.  For that very reason, Frank cannot rely on the Surrogacy Agreement in defending the separate custody case brought against him by Renee, since a statutory provision says that a surrogacy agreement cannot be considered by the court in a custody proceeding involving the surrogate mother.  

The Appellate Division found that “Joseph sufficiently demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that he and Frank entered into a pre-conception agreement to conceive the children and to raise them together as their parents.”  The court also pointed out that the men “equally shared the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, and were equally regarded by the children as their parents.”  Thus, a straightforward application of the new precedent gave Joseph standing to seek custody.

Frank had also argued, as part of a belated attempt to get permission from the Family Court to relocate the children to Florida, that Renee’s parent standing was terminated due to her entry into a surrogacy agreement with the two men. Rejecting this argument, the court said that such rights were not terminated.  “Surrogate parenting contracts have been declared contrary to the public policy, and are void and unenforceable,” wrote the court.  As such, a surrogacy contract has no legal effect.  “Moreover,” the court observed, “Domestic Relations Law Sec. 124(1) expressly states that ‘the court shall not consider the birth mother’s participation in a surrogate parenting contract as adverse to her parental rights, status, or obligations.’”  The court also noted that a hearing would be required to determine whether it was in the best interest of the children to allow Frank to relocate them to Florida.  The court also affirmed the Family Court’s award to Joseph of specified visitation with the children while the case is pending.

This ruling does not mean that Joseph will automatically get custody.  The case goes back to the Family Court for a determination whether an award of custody to Joseph is in the best interest of the children.  Furthermore, although Renee’s custody petition is mentioned in the opinion, the appellate court gives no indication what effect its ruling will have on her custody claim.  However, because New York law does not provide that a child can simultaneously have three legal parents, the Family Court will have to take account of Renee’s continued legal status as the children’s parent in making a determination whether to award custody to Joseph, and whether that would require terminating the parental status of either Renee or Frank.  This is a complicated business, and the New York State legislature needs to modernize our Domestic Relations Law to sort through the intricacies and provide clear guidance to the courts when dealing with “non-traditional” families.  Left to their own devices without such guidance, it is difficult to predict what the courts will do.

Kathleen L. Bloom of New Windsor represents Joseph.  Michael D. Meth and Bianca Formisano of Chester represent Frank.  Gloria Marchetti-Bruck of Mount Kisco was appointed by the court to represent the interest of the children.  Since Renee was not involved in this appeal, the opinion does not identify her counsel.