ANALYSIS OF AUGUST 17, 2017 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted August 17, 2017) Cue the fanfare; for the first time in three weeks, we have an opinion from the Supreme Court.
(What, you were getting impatient? If so, I invite you to remember that before the court went to rolling release dates in 2015, you would have been waiting another month, until the September session, for this ruling. Look at the bright side.)
In re Dennis is a name-change proceeding filed by an inmate at the Greensville Correctional Center. Dennis sought to change his surname (leaving his given names intact) to Wright. In his petition, he asserts that he has converted to the Native American Faith, and that required him to change his name to match that of “his last full-blood Native American Ancestor.”
I had not known before reading this that there was a Native American Faith. (Neither had Justice Goodwyn, based on the scare quotes around the term in his opinion for the court.) I had assumed that Native Americans had a variety of religious denominations, based on which tribe they belonged to. You can learn a lot by reading Supreme Court opinions.
Virginia law is fairly deferential when it comes to changing your name. For most folks, a simple application and an inoffensive name choice are sufficient. Changing your name isn’t as easy as changing your clothes, but the Code allows John Q. Public to become John Q. Citizen fairly easily.
It isn’t as easy with inmates, for understandable reasons. The General Assembly amended the statute in 2014 to add a new subsection D, dealing with inmates. It now provides that for inmates and persons required to register as sex offenders, the trial court must reject the application unless it finds good cause to consider it. If so, the court notifies the local prosecutor, who can oppose it if he or she sees fit.
Dennis had been convicted of several sexual offenses, so after reading the petition, the circuit-court judge declined to find good cause and dismissed the petition. Against that backdrop, you may be surprised to learn that the justices granted a writ. You’ll be even more surprised that the court today unanimously reverses and sends the petition back for adjudication on the merits.
A review of the decision will end your surprise. The justices note that, based on a 2007 ruling, a religious purpose is sufficient to constitute good cause for a name change. The trial court simply skipped a step and decided the merits of the petition without considering the religious reason.
That being said, the penultimate paragraph of today’s opinion portends a dim future for the merits of the case. Justice Goodwyn observes that “the situation changes entirely” when the court takes up the merits. At that stage, Dennis’s criminal history may well thwart his effort to adopt a different name.
This decision is analogous to a trial court’s grant of summary judgment, or sustaining of a demurrer, in a civil action based on the perceived inability of the plaintiff to prove her case. You have to get to an evidentiary hearing for that, and the justices today rule that although Dennis is facing a long uphill slog on the merits, he’s entitled to an evidentiary hearing, too.