The Illinois Supreme Court's May Term begins Monday, May 11, 2020. For the first time, the Court will be conducting remote oral arguments using Zoom videoconferencing. Oral arguments are scheduled for May 12, 13, and 14, 2020. A total of 10 cases will be heard -- 6 criminal and 4 civil. The following civil cases are scheduled for argument this Term:
May 13, 2020
People ex rel. Dep't of Human Rights v. Oakridge Nursing & Rehab. Center, No. 124753
May 14, 2020
Sharpe v. Westmoreland, No. 124863
Goral v. Dart, No. 125085
United States v. Gilspie, No. 125483
Below is a summary for one of those cases, Sharpe v. Westmoreland. Summaries for these cases and others pending in the Illinois Supreme Court can be found in our Cases Pending publication, available to ALA members on the ALA’s website.
Sharpe v. Westmoreland, No. 124863
This case concerns two questions certified by the circuit court under Supreme Court Rule 308: (1) whether a party to a civil union as defined by 750 ILCS 75/10 has standing to request visitation with his or her deceased partner’s child as a step-parent under 750 ILCS 5/602.9(a)(3) (the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (“Marriage Act”)); and (2) whether a party to a civil union as defined by 750 ILCS 75/10 has standing to request parental responsibilities of his or her deceased partner’s child as a step-parent under 750 ILCS 5/601.2(b)(4).
The marriage of Crystal Westmoreland and Matt Sharpe was dissolved in January, 2013. As part of the dissolution, they agreed to a joint parenting agreement with respect to their child, A.S., who was then seven years old. While the parties shared equal parenting time, A.S.’s legal residence was with Sharpe. In November, 2013, Sharpe entered into a civil union with Kris Fulkerson. A.S. continued to reside with Sharpe and Fulkerson and her three children. Sharpe died on January 2, 2017. After his death, Westmoreland began to deny Fulkerson visitation with A.S., even though A.S. expressed a desire to live with Fulkerson and her children. Fulkerson then filed a petition seeking visitation rights and an allocation of parental responsibilities with respect to A.S.
The circuit court granted Fulkerson’s petition for leave to intervene, determining that she had standing as a step-parent under the Marriage Act to seek visitation with and parental responsibilities of her deceased partner’s child, A.S. Westmoreland argued that Fulkerson did not have standing because she is not a step-parent of A.S., given that she was never legally married to A.S.’s father as required by the definition of step-parent under sections 600(l) and 602.9(a)(3) of the Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/600(l), 602.9(a)(3)). The circuit court certified the above two questions under Rule 308 and the appellate court granted the petition for leave to appeal.
The appellate court explained the purposes behind the Marriage Act and Civil Union Act, explaining that while the Civil Union Act provides persons entering into civil unions with the same obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to those persons entering into marriages, the equation of partners’ rights and obligations in relation to each other does not necessarily equate civil union partners to married spouses in relation to children. The Marriage Act specifically addresses the allocation of parental responsibilities, including establishing visitation with a minor child by a nonparent. A step-parent under the Marriage Act is defined as someone who is or was married to the parent, immediately prior to his or her death. 750 ILCS 5/600(l), 602.9(a)(3). The court explained that neither of these sections mentions or includes partners to a civil union and held that the omission of any reference to partners joined by civil unions in the definition of step-parents reflects a legislative intent not to include civil union partners in the category of nonparents who have standing to seek visitation. The court then held that step-parentage requires a legal marriage as opposed to a civil union. The appellate court answered both certified questions for interlocutory appeal in the negative, reversed the circuit court’s ruling and remanded for further proceedings.
Fulkerson seeks relief in the Illinois Supreme Court, arguing in part that the appellate court’s opinion conflicts with the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, 750 ILCS 75/1, et seq., deprives parties to civil unions of the rights the General Assembly promised them, and stigmatizes their relationship as second-class by denying them legal protections accorded to married couples.