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R.W. v. D.C.

March 02, 2001

IN RE R.C., A MINOR
R.W. ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
D.C., APPELLEE



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Freeman

Agenda September 22, 2000.

In this direct appeal, we are asked to review the circuit court's determination that section 1(D)(p) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(p) (West 1998)) is unconstitutional. We find the statute constitutional, and accordingly reverse and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

The parties do not dispute some basic background facts. D.C. became pregnant in 1994. In January 1995, as her due date approached, D.C. contacted Lutheran Child and Family Services (Lutheran) regarding adoption placement for her soon-to-be-born child. Lutheran began to consider placement options for the child and eventually narrowed the choice to two couples, one of which was R.W. and C.W., the petitioners in this case. On February 4, 1995, D.C. gave birth to R.C. at Ottawa Community Hospital. At that time, D.C. signed an agreement giving Lutheran temporary custody of R.C. for placement purposes. She also indicated that, of the two families being considered by Lutheran, she would prefer that R.C. be placed with petitioners. Two days after the birth, D.C. was transferred to the hospital's psychiatric ward. On February 7, 1995, three days after R.C.'s birth, Lutheran placed the child with petitioners. So far as the record reveals, R.C. has lived with them ever since. D.C. was discharged from the hospital within two weeks, but entered and departed psychiatric institutions on multiple occasions during the next several months, and never signed a surrender of parental rights. The alleged birth father surrendered his parental rights soon after the child's birth and is not a party to this action.

On April 7, 1995, R.W. and C.W. filed the instant petition for adoption. Petitioners contend that D.C.'s consent to the adoption is not required because she is an unfit parent as defined in section 1(D)(p) of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/1(D)(p) (West 1998)). That section provides that one ground upon which an individual may be found unfit is

"(p) Inability to discharge parental responsibilities supported by competent evidence from a psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, or clinical psychologist of mental impairment, mental illness or mental retardation as defined in Section 1-116 of the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code, or developmental disability as defined in Section 1-106 of that Code, and there is sufficient justification to believe that the inability to discharge parental responsibilities shall extend beyond a reasonable time period. However, this subdivision (p) shall not be construed so as to permit a licensed clinical social worker to conduct any medical diagnosis to determine mental illness or mental impairment." 750 ILCS 50/1(D)(p) (West 1998).

On the same day that R.W. and C.W. filed their petition, the trial court entered an interim order terminating the father's parental rights and awarding temporary custody to the foster parents until further order. The case encountered numerous procedural delays, including changes of counsel, stays, and an interlocutory appeal. In August 1998, counsel for D.C. filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that section 1(D)(p) was unconstitutional and was preempted by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) (42 U.S.C. §12101 et seq. (1994)). In January 2000 the circuit court entered an order rejecting D.C.'s contention regarding the ADA but finding section 1(D)(p) unconstitutional on its face. The court found that the provision was "facially vague and violates due process[,] facially violates substantive due process[,] facially violates procedural due process[,] and facially violates equal protection."

Petitioners and R.C., through her guardian ad litem, filed a notice of appeal. The circuit court allowed the Illinois Attorney General to intervene in the case, and the Attorney General filed a separate notice of appeal. We have consolidated the appeals, which lie directly to this court because the circuit court declared an Illinois statute invalid. 134 Ill. 2d R. 302(a)(1). Additionally, we permitted the Cook County State's Attorney to file a brief as amicus curiae in support of petitioners.

ANALYSIS

All statutes are presumed to be constitutional. Arangold Corp. v. Zehnder, 187 Ill. 2d 341, 351 (1999). The party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of rebutting this presumption and clearly establishing a constitutional violation. Arangold, 187 Ill. 2d at 351. As the issue is one of law, we review de novo any decision finding a statute unconstitutional. People v. Jung, 192 Ill. 2d 1 (2000); People ex rel. Lumpkin v. Cassidy, 184 Ill. 2d 117 (1998). It is our duty to construe acts of the legislature so as to affirm their constitutionality and validity if we can reasonably do so. R.W. Dunteman Co. v. C/G Enterprises, Inc., 181 Ill. 2d 153, 163 (1998).

In this case the circuit court declared that section 1(D)(p) was unconstitutional on its face. It is well settled that a facial challenge

"must overcome considerable hurdles:

`A facial challenge to a legislative Act is, of course, the most difficult challenge to mount successfully, since the challenger must establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the Act would be valid. The fact that the [statute] might operate unconstitutionally under some conceivable set of circumstances is insufficient to render it wholly invalid, since we have not recognized an "overbreadth" doctrine outside the limited context of the First Amendment.' " In re C.E., 161 Ill. 2d 200, 210-11 (1994), quoting United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 745, 95 L. Ed. 2d 697, 707, 107 S. Ct. 2095, 2100 (1987).

Initially, we note that our appellate court has consistently upheld section 1(D)(p) against these constitutional challenges. See In re B.S., No. 1-98-3855 (November 8, 2000), slip op. at 21-24 (statute not vague or in violation of equal protection or due process); In re J.S., 213 Ill. App. 3d 126 (1991) (statute not vague); In re I.D., 205 Ill. App. 3d 543, 548-50 (1990) (upholding statute against general due process and equal protection challenges). No panel of the appellate court has ruled to the contrary. The circuit court noted J.S. and I.D. in its memorandum order but refused to follow this authority. As we have repeatedly held, this is error. "It is the absolute duty of the circuit court to follow the decisions of the appellate court." In re A.A., 181 Ill. 2d 32, 36 (1998); see also People v. Harris, 123 Ill. 2d 113, 128 (1988) ("[i]t is fundamental in Illinois that the decisions of an appellate court are binding precedent on all circuit courts regardless of locale"). If a circuit court "entertains genuine doubt about the continued vitality of a reviewing court decision," the proper manner in which to proceed in a complex or protracted case is to rule in accordance with existing law and to enter a Rule 304(a) (155 Ill. 2d R. 304(a)) finding or certify the question for interlocutory appeal under Rule 308 (134 Ill. 2d R. 308). Because of our system of precedent the circuit court is not, however, free to disregard binding authority. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Yapejian, 152 Ill. 2d 533, 539-40 (1992).

However, we note that the decisions in B.S. and I.D. were based on the premise that the appropriate standard of scrutiny for evaluating due process and equal protection challenges to section 1(D)(p) was the "rational basis" test. B.S., slip op. at 22; I.D., 205 Ill. App. 3d at 549. The decision in J.S. merely quoted the analysis of the I.D. court. See J.S., 213 Ill. App. 3d at 131. As we shall later discuss, the fundamental nature of the rights inherent in the parent-child relationship compel the conclusion that the statute must instead withstand strict constitutional scrutiny. This matter is ...


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