It was a long road, but the SJC came down with its decision in Adoption of Spado, and a very good decision it is. [2009 ME 76 ]. In a unanimous ruling, the Court issued a judgment in favor of our client, Patricia Spado, affirming the legality of her 1991 adoption by Olive Watson.
As the Court notes, in 1978, Patricia Spado and Olive Watson began a long-term relationship. Patricia gave up her job to live with Olive and devote herself to their domestic life. They were almost never apart. Beginning in 1986, every summer, they would go up to the Watson compound in North Haven, Maine ("Oak Hill") and stay at Olive's house.
In 1987, Olive started to explore a means of providing Patricia with some form of financial security. Marriage was unavailable at that time, and so she consulted with her attorney in New York about adoption – a mechanism, as the decision notes (p. 15) historically used with respect to adults to convey inheritance rights, formalize an existing relationship or provide care to a disabled adoptee. Olive's lawyer said she could not adopt a sexual partner in New York, but that Maine was a possibility. Her lawyer retained Maine counsel to advise whether this option was legally available; in his opinion, it was, and so in 1991, Olive filed a petition in the Rockland Probate Court to adopt Patricia. After a hearing, the Probate Court (Judge Emery) granted the adoption.
Time passed. Olive decided to terminate her relationship with Patricia. With the assistance of counsel, they divided their property and entered into an agreement in which Olive promised that she would not attempt to alter Patricia's adopted status.
More time passes. In 2005, Olive's brother, Thomas Watson III, and his lawyer filed a petition to annul the adoption. They are trustees of some Watson family trusts and want to keep Patricia from receiving any benefit as a Watson grandchild.
Judge Emery granted the annulment based on the conclusion that there had been a default in responding to the petition. At this point, Pierce Atwood came in to represent Patricia. On appeal, the default was lifted, and the matter returned to the Probate Court. The trustees claimed (1) a fraud had been perpetrated on the Probate Court and (2) the adoption should be annulled for fear of opening the floodgates in Maine to same-sex adult adoptions.
Judge Emery again granted the annulment, so up we went again to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Finally, today, Patricia prevailed.
As the SJC noted, there was no fraud - only reliance on good faith legal advice. The decision discusses the adoption statute, noting that it is ambiguous as to whether Patricia's summer stays in Maine established the necessary residency (as the decision indicates, there is good reason to think so for multiple reasons). But in any event, as a summary matter, "'even if Patricia, as an adult person being adopted, was ultimately incorrect in asserting that in the summer of 1991 she 'lived' in Knox county within the meaning of section 531, it is difficult to conclude that her actions — based on a reasonable legal interpretation of an ambiguous statute — amount to a fraud …. To the contrary …". In sum, "the trustees failed to establish sufficient facts to support their claim."
The SJC then gave short shrift to the trustees' "public policy" argument. "We are unpersuaded by the trustees' contention," it said, that the adoption should be annulled based on a policy of "prohibiting adoptions involving same-sex couples," noting that "there are a multiude of valid legal reasons why one adult would choose to adopt another adult." Patricia, the adoptee, "herself opposes the annulment,' it noted, and remanded for entry of judgment in her favor.
The decision is comprehensive and straightforward. This may be one of Justice Clifford's last decisions before his retirement, and what a good one to finish up with. It's another example of why he will be missed so much. He understands — as does the SJC as a whole — how each decision, and each court ruling, like the grant of an adoption, affects individual human beings, who rely on these rulings in carrying out their daily lives, and each of whom is entitled to be treated with respect and fairness. It is unfortunate that the trustees caused Patricia so much grief with their unsuccessful legal efforts to have their way, and that it took this long to for them to be stopped. It came out right in the end, however, thanks to a Court unswayed by power, wealth or anything but what is right under the law.
It was a good day not just for Patricia, but the rule of law.