Heather Fann: Serving the State

August 10, 2016

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Heather Fann (’06) has served clients who might not otherwise find legal representation.

In 2013, Fann filed a lawsuit on behalf of V. L., a woman who sought visitation rights after separating from her lesbian partner, E. L., who had given birth to their three children through donor insemination. V. L. adopted the children in Georgia so that both of them would have parental rights. After the couple’s relationship ended, the birth mother argued Alabama did not have to recognize the adoption.

The Alabama Supreme Court issued an order in September 2015 refusing to recognize the Georgia adoption, and the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned the Alabama Supreme Court in March, saying it overstepped its authority.

“The case affirmed in some way the fact that it’s not just about the marriage,” Fann said. “It’s about the families, and these children are due the respect of the law regardless of whether their parents are of the same gender.”

V.L.’s parental rights have been restored, and the case has been remanded to the trial court. It is Fann’s hope the ruling saves other parents from the heartache of trying to remain a part of their children’s lives.

Because of her work on V. L.’s case, Fann was asked to join the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the ACLU of Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to represent James Strawser and John Humphrey. They applied for a marriage license in Mobile County, but were denied. Strawser faces significant health issues. Despite having a medical power of attorney, a hospital would not recognize it because Humphrey was not a family member or spouse.

Fann’s interest in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights began in law school. She and Nic Carlisle, who is gay, founded the Law School’s Gay-Straight Alliance, or Outlaw, in 2005, and she served as vice president of the group.

The newly formed Gay-Straight Alliance staged a protest in front of Gorgas Library, after state Rep. Gerald Allen proposed legislation to ban public school libraries from buying new copies of plays or books by gay authors or those that featured gay characters.  The event happened the same day Alice Walker was on campus giving a reading. Walker, whose book, The Color Purple, would have been banned under the proposed law, heard about the protest and went to the library to support the group.

Carlisle said he would not have had the courage to the start a gay-straight alliance at UA Law without Fann. He knew then she would be a success after law school.

“It was never about being a traditional lawyer; it was never about money or salary,” he said. “She had an intent drive to help people. I think that took vision.”

While in law school, Fann wrote “Desperately Clinging to the Cleavers: What Family Law Courts Are Doing about Homosexual Parents, and What Some Are Refusing to See” for the Law and Psychology Review. In the article, Fann examined family law governing homosexual parents in the United States and how the legal system denies them their parental rights.

She has heard the reasons why some attorneys won’t take LGBT rights cases. For starters, the cases are difficult to win, and some judges are prejudiced against them. None of that matters to Fann.

“I think that lawyers in the state of Alabama have a responsibility to equality and justice even where our law doesn’t expressly provide it,” Fann said. “I hope more lawyers will take up these cases when they see wrong.”

Retired Judge Hub Harrington said Fann appeared regularly before him in Shelby County Circuit Court and became an advocate of LGBT rights before the movement gained traction.

“In spite of the daunting legal hurdles the cases presented at the time, she was willing to do it when most people weren’t,” he said.

Some lawyers are afraid they will be spurned by other people if they take on LGBT cases. The opposite has happened with Fann, as more clients seek out her expertise. Fann has taken on hundreds of family law cases, but the V. L. and Strawser cases have a much broader effect on the state and society.

“V. L. was the kind of case that I really thought could make a difference,” Fann said. “It was a compelling case in terms of the facts, because we had people who had agreed to be parents together and who had sought the court’s formal recognition of that arrangement.”