The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on gay marriage this month. The high court decision could mark the end of a complicated legal era in which same-sex couples have had to jump through legal hoops to legally protect their family unit.
It's been especially awkward for lesbian couples.
“It is kind of an odd thing to have to adopt your own child,” says Julia Crouch of Seattle. She and her wife, Sarah Weigle, had their first child, Maya Rose Weigle, on Nov. 7, 2014. Crouch adopted Maya in January.
Weigle and Crouch's situation illustrates the problems with having a patchwork of rules across different states.
Under Washington state law, Crouch is also Maya's mom. But if they left Washington and Weigle, the birth mother, died, Crouch's status as mom could face a legal challenge. Using their lawyer's advice, Crouch adopted her child.
"We probably could have been OK without going forward with the adoption, so long as we didn’t travel outside the state," Crouch says. "But we do plan to travel outside the state, so it seemed like the responsible thing to do."
Seattle family law attorney Barbara Wechsler has shepherded hundreds of same-sex couples through second parent adoptions like that, a process she started in the 1980s.
Many routine administrative hearings are handled by commissioners, who are one step below a judge. “There was one commissioner that refused,” Wechsler says. “It was personal, political, maybe it was religious. But they didn’t believe in gay and lesbian adoptions.”
In the 1990s, King County streamlined the process.
But Wechsler wanted a judge who could give these couples more than a cut-and-dry administrative hearing. In 2000, she asked Mary Yu, a newly appointed King County Superior Court judge, to preside over the hearings. (Yu, now a Supreme Court justice, was the first gay member on the state's high court.) It was a big ask, as such routine proceedings are usually left to commissioners.
Yu turned the adoption hearings into a ceremony. She offered those present the chance to say something to the couple. “Sometimes it was an opportunity for them to express love that they haven’t expressed before,” Yu says, “ a chance to say we love you, and we love the fact that you’ve constructed this family.”
Wechsler remembers the effect Judge Yu had on families: “She often looks at grandparents and tells them, 'I know this journey may not be easy or simple for many of you. But you being here is a lesson of how we all need to love who our children love. And that isn’t always easy.'”
Wechsler remembers one woman whose father had been skeptical when his lesbian daughter wanted to adopt. The disapproving father came to the adoption ceremony anyway, and Judge Yu addressed him. Years later, the couple was ready for their second adoption.
Wechsler remembers what they said: “‘We have to have Judge Yu.’ I said, ‘Well, of course, no problem. Why this urgency?’”
According to Wechsler, one of the mothers said, “My father, after that hearing, truly evolved so quickly. He kept thinking about what she said. All I heard was 'Judge Yu, Judge Yu, Judge Yu' from my father for the longest time.”
Yu continued to preside over adoptions after she was appointed to the Supreme Court. After her busy week, she would fight traffic from Olympia to Seattle to perform adoptions.
Over the years, Yu has performed the service for around 1,400 same sex couples. An estimated 20,000 friends and family members have sat in her courtroom during those adoptions.
“I remember almost every single hearing," Yu says. "To have a judge formally, in a courtroom say, 'We recognize your family,' would bring people to tears. This is the power of the rule of law. This is the power of recognition.”
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalizes marriages across 50 states could eventually make second parent adoptions irrelevant.
As for Yu, she says it’s time for her to move on. “The shift in law does relieve me of a sense of responsibility,” she says. “My last one is at the end of July, I believe.”
That will be after the Supreme Court decision. “We might have a big party in that courtroom,” says Yu.