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Arkansas Supreme Court Rules Fayetteville Anti-Discrimination Measure Violates State Law

Posted on: February 23rd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Fayetteville has been a hotbed of LGBT rights advocacy, but on February 23 the Arkansas Supreme Court, reversing a ruling by Washington County Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin, found that the city and its voters had violated state law by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to their antidiscrimination ordinance. Protect Fayetteville & State of Arkansas v. City of Fayetteville, 2017 Ark. 49.  Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote the opinion for the unanimous court.

Responding to earlier attempts to enact LGBT rights protections in Fayetteville, the Arkansas legislature passed Act 137 in 2015. Titled the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act, Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 14-1-401 to 403, the measure was intended, according to its purpose section, “to improve intrastate commerce by ensuring that businesses, organizations, and employers doing business in the state are subject to uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations, regardless of the counties, municipalities, or other political subdivisions in which the businesses, organizations, and employers are located or engage in business or commercial activities.”  To that end, the measure bars local governments from adopting or enforcing “an ordinance, resolution, rule, or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.”  The Act recognizes one exception: local governments are left free to legislate on their own employment policies.  Thus, a city can adopt an ordinance banning discrimination in its own workforce on grounds “not contained in state law.”

Arkansas, in common with the entire southeastern United States, does not forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in its state antidiscrimination statute. The clear intent of the legislators was to preempt local governments from adding those two characteristics to their local antidiscrimination ordinances. Or at least that’s what the court held in this decision.

Local LGBT rights advocates and city officials took a different view, however, seizing upon the literal meaning of “not contained in state law” and finding that Arkansas laws existed mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, an anti-bullying law protects public school students and employees from bullying because of gender identity or sexual orientation, among a list of 13 characteristics.  There is also a provision in the state’s domestic violence law requiring domestic violence shelters to adopt nondiscrimination policies that include “sexual preference.”  And the state’s vital statistics act provides a mechanism for an individual to get a new birth certificate after sex reassignment surgery.  Taken together, the advocates argued that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are classifications that exist in Arkansas law, their inclusion in the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance would not be prohibited by Act 137.

The city council approved a new ordinance, Ordinance 5781, to add those categories to the local law, subject to an affirmative referendum vote. Opponents of the measure (plaintiffs in this case) tried to get the local court to stall the referendum while they contested the legality of the proposed ordinance, but the local court refused and the public voted to approve the measure.  Ultimately, Judge Martin agreed with the argument that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” could be added to the local ordinance, as they were categories that were mentioned in state law.

The Supreme Court’s reversal was premised on legislative intent. “In this case,” wrote Justice Hart, “the General Assembly expressly stated the intent.”  The operative language could not be construed in isolation from the prefatory provision explaining why the legislature had adopted Act 137.  They wanted nondiscrimination laws to be uniform through the state, and did not want localities to outlaw discrimination based on classifications that were not included in the state’s own antidiscrimination law.  “The express purpose of Act 137 is to subject entities to ‘uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations,’” wrote Justice Hart.  She also noted that the Fayetteville ordinance, in a provision explaining the city council’s purpose, stated that “its purpose is to ‘extend’ discrimination to include ‘sexual orientation and gender identity.”  Explained Justice Hart, “In essence, Ordinance 5781 is a municipal decision to expand the provisions of the Arkansas Civil Rights Act to include persons of a particular sexual orientation and gender identity.”  She’s incorrect, of course, as to this statement, since by its plain meaning the ordinance would protect anybody from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including “straight” and “cisgender” people.

“This violates the plain wording of Act 137 by extending discrimination laws in the City of Fayetteville to include two classifications not previously included under state law,” wrote Hart. “This necessarily creates a nonuniform nondiscrimination law and obligation in the City of Fayetteville that does not exist under state law. It is clear from the statutory language and the Ordinance’s language that there is a direct inconsistency between state and municipal law and that the Ordinance is an obstacle to the objectives and purposes set forth in the General Assembly’s Act and therefore it cannot stand.”  She noted that the statutes relied upon by the city and Judge Martin to argue that these categories were covered in state law were not antidiscrimination statutes, and thus could not be relied upon as a basis for adding them to the local antidiscrimination ordinance.

As a co-plaintiff in the case the State had intervened to protect the constitutionality of Act 137, which had been questioned by the city, but that issue had not been addressed by the circuit court, and the Supreme Court held it thus had not been preserved for appeal. The case was reversed and remanded.  On remand, the city could pursue the question of the constitutionality of Act 137.  It is strikingly similar, despite its euphemistic wording, to Colorado Amendment 2, which was declared unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment by the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans (1996).  Amendment 2 prohibited the state or any political subdivision from prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation.  The Supreme Court, focusing on the legislative history of the measure, condemned it as intended to make gay people unequal to everybody else in the state out of moral disapproval.  The state had advanced a desire for uniformity of state laws as one of many justifications for Amendment 2, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, did not specifically reject any of the state’s justifications, merely stating that none of them were sufficient to justify the law, which did not even clear rational basis scrutiny.

NCLR Seeks Supreme Court Review of Arkansas Birth Certificate Decision

Posted on: February 15th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court on February 13, seeking review of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision that the state was not required under Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), to extend the presumption of parentage to the same-sex spouse of a birth mother for purposes of recording parentage on a birth certificate. Smith v. Pavan, 2016 WL 7156529 (Ark. December 8, 2016), petition for certiorari filed sub nom. Pavan v. Smith, No. 16-992.

The Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision, by a sharply divided court with three strong dissenting opinions, was the first ruling on this question to depart from a post-Obergefell consensus of courts in other jurisdictions that equal marriage rights for same-sex couples necessarily include the equal right to have a spouse recorded as a parent on a birth certificate, despite the lack of a “biological” tie to the child, especially in light of the common practice of automatically recognizing a birth mother’s husband for that purpose, regardless whether he is “biologically related” to the child.

The due process and equal protection issues raised by the Arkansas court’s decision are stark, raising the possibility that the Supreme Court might consider this an appropriate case for a summary reversal, similar to its decision last term to summarily reverse the Alabama Supreme Court’s refusal to accord full faith and credit to a same-sex second parent adoption approved by a Georgia family court in V.L. v. E.L., 136 S. Ct. 1017 (March 7, 2016).  In V.L. the Court moved quickly to reverse the state supreme court ruling based on the certiorari filings, seeing no need for full briefing and hearing on the merits.  That ruling was announced several weeks after the death of Justice Scalia by the eight-member Court, and brought no dissent from any justices, three of whom had dissented in Obergefell.  They implicitly agreed that with Obergefell as a precedent, there was no justification for recognizing any exception to the general rule that adoption decrees are to be recognized when the court granting the adoption clearly had jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter of the adoption petition.  They rejected the Alabama Supreme Court’s reliance on its own interpretation of the Georgia adoption statute as withholding “jurisdiction” from the family court to grant such an adoption.

NCLR petitioned on behalf of two married same-sex couples – Marisa and Terrah Pavan and Leigh and Jana Jacobs. Each couple had married out of state and then, living in Arkansas, had a child conceived through donor insemination.  In both cases, the mothers completed the necessary paper work to get a birth certificate when their children were born.  In both cases, the state health department issued a certificate naming only the birth mother and leaving the space for “father” blank on the birth certificate rather than naming the other mother.  The state insisted that under its statute the automatic listing was limited to a husband of the birth mother.

The women filed suit against the director of the state health department, Dr. Nathaniel Smith, seeking to compel issuance of appropriate birth certificates, together with another couple who were not married when they had their child but who subsequently married after the Obergefell decision and sought an amended birth certificate.  That other couple is no longer in the case, having gone through an adoption proceeding and obtained a new birth certificate naming both mothers.  The Arkansas state trial court construed Obergefell and its own marriage equality decision, Wright v. Smith, to require according equal recognition to same-sex marriages for this purpose, and ordered the state to issue amended birth certificates accordingly.  The trial court refused to stay its decision pending appeal, so the certificates were issued.

The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed, even though the state conceded at oral argument that in light of its statute requiring that a husband be listed on a birth certificate regardless whether he was biologically related to the child the state’s position was inconsistent with its own practice. Indeed, the state conceded at oral argument that it had no rational basis for treating same-sex and different-sex spouses differently for this purpose.  However, the state insisted that it was refusing to list same-sex spouses consistent with its gender-specific statute because the birth certificate was necessary to establish the identity of biological parents for public health reasons.  This was a patently absurd argument in light of the various circumstances under Arkansas law where non-biological fathers are listed on birth certificates.

The dissenting judges pointed in various ways to the Obergefell decision, which actually listed birth certificates as one of the issues related to marital rights that helped explain why the right to marry was a fundamental right.  Furthermore, as the certiorari petition points out in detail, the very question raised by this case was specifically part of the Obergefell case, as the underlying state cases that were consolidated into the appeal argued at the 6th Circuit and the Supreme Court included plaintiffs who were married lesbian couples seeking to have appropriate birth certificates for their children.  In those cases, the certificates had been denied by states that refused to recognize the validity of the mothers’ out-of-state marriages.  Thus, the Supreme Court’s reference to birth certificates was part of the issue before the Court, not merely illustrative of the reasons why the Court deemed the right to marry fundamental, and in holding that states were required to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other states, the Court was incidentally addressing the refusal of states in the cases before the Court to recognize petitioners’ marriages for purposes of recording the names of parents on birth certificates!

Thus, the Arkansas Supreme Court majority was clearly wrong in asserting that the Obergefell decision did not address this issue and pertained only to the question whether same-sex couples had a right to marry.  Given biological facts, lesbian couples having children through donor insemination are exactly similarly situated with different-sex couples having children through donor insemination, as in both cases the spouse of the birth mother is not the biological parent of the child.  By the logic of Obergefell, denial of such recognition and marital rights offends both due process and equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment.  And, as the Petition points out, such denial relegates same-sex marriages to a “second tier” treatment, which was condemned by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), when it ruled that the federal government was required to extend equal recognition to same-sex marriages validly contracted under state laws.  In both cases, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the inability of same-sex lesbian couples to conceive children without a sperm donor provided a rational basis to deny recognition to their marriages or treat them differently from the marriages of heterosexual couples.

NCLR attorneys on the Petition including Legal Director Shannon Minter and staff attorneys Christopher Stoll and Amy Whelan. Arkansas attorney Cheryl Maples is listed as local counsel.  Cooperating Attorneys from Ropes & Gray LLP (Washington and Boston offices) on the Petition include Molly Gachignard, Christopher Thomas Brown, Justin Florence, Joshua Goldstein and Daniel Swartz, with prominent R&G partner Douglas Hallward-Driemeier as Counsel of Record for the case.  Hallward-Driemeier successfully argued the marriage recognition issue before the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.  GLAD attorney Mary Bonauto from Boston argued the right to marry issue in Obergefell.

Arkansas Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Discriminatory Birth Certificate Statutes

Posted on: December 12th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Although the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sweeping ruling for marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015, pockets of resistance remain in the states. The latest manifestation of this phenomenon comes from Arkansas, where the state’s Supreme Court ruled on December 8 by a 4-3 vote that same-sex couples do not enjoy the same constitutional rights as opposite sex couples when it comes to listing parents on birth certificates.  In Smith v. Pavan, 2016 Ark. 437, the majority of the court rejected a constitutional challenge to two Arkansas statutes under which wives of birth mothers are denied equal treatment with husbands of birth mothers in the matter of being listed as parents on birth certificates.  Three members of the court disagreed with the majority to varying extents in separate opinions.

 

The case was brought by three lesbian couples. Two of the couples, Marisa and Terrah Pavan and Leigh and Jana Jacobs, were married out-of-state and then had a child born in their residential state of Arkansas.  The third couple, Courtney Kassel and Kelly Scott, had a child in Arkansas and married shortly thereafter.  In all three cases, the Department of Health, headed by named-defendant Dr. Nathaniel Smith, refused to list the spouse of the birth mother on the birth certificate, relying on gender-specific Arkansas statutes that provide for listing husbands but not wives of birth mothers.

 

The women, represented by attorney Cheryl Maples with amicus assistance from the ACLU of Arkansas and the national ACLU LGBT Rights Project, filed suit against Smith. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Timothy Davis Fox accepted their argument that Dr. Smith, who was also a named defendant in Wright v. Smith, the Arkansas state court marriage equality case, was bound by the decision in that earlier case, which had struck down as unconstitutional not only the state’s ban on same-sex marriage but also “all other state and local laws and regulations identified in Plaintiff’s complaint or otherwise in existence to the extent they do not recognize same-sex marriages validly contracted outside Arkansas, prohibit otherwise qualified same-sex couples from marrying in Arkansas or deny same-sex married couples the rights, recognition and benefits associated with marriage in the State of Arkansas.”

 

The case appeared clear to Judge Fox. The final court order issued in Wright v. Smith required that Arkansas treat same-sex marriages as equal to different-sex marriages in all respects under state law, and Smith was precluded from trying to re-litigate that issue in this case.  Smith’s appeal from the trial court’s ruling in Wright v. Smith was pending when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling in Obergefell, after which the Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed that appeal as moot, ending a stay that it had granted on the trial court’s Order.

 

Furthermore, Judge Fox found support for his decision in favor of the women in the Obergefell opinion itself, noting that Justice Anthony Kennedy had mentioned “certificates of birth and death” as one of the benefits of same-sex marriage. Kennedy had written:

 

“The challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and they abridge central precepts of equality. The marriage laws at issue are in essence unequal: Same-sex couples are denied benefits afforded opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right. . . . The State laws challenged by the petitioners in these cases are held invalid to the extent they exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.”

 

To Judge Fox, this meant that married same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights of marriage as different sex couples, including the same spousal rights regarding birth certificates.

 

But a majority of the Arkansas Supreme Court insisted that the Obergefell decision, and the state court Wright decision, had not decided this issue. An opinion by Justice Josephine Linker Hart for four members of the seven-member court insisted that the only questions decided by these prior cases were whether same-sex couples could marry or have their out-of-state marriages recognized.   Viewed this way, the Wright v. Smith decision would not preclude Smith from applying Arkansas statutes to refuse to list the same-sex spouses on birth certificates unless the court were to decide independently that doing so violated the constitutional rights of the spouses.  This the court was unwilling to do.

 

Since Judge Fox had ordered Smith to issue new birth certificates listing both mothers, and that order had not been stayed, the Supreme Court decided that the case should be treated as a facial challenge to the constitutionality of the statutes. Because the plaintiffs had actually received the birth certificates they sought, any “as applied” challenge was deemed to be moot.

 

One of the challenged statutes provides that when a child is born to a married woman, her husband will be listed on the birth certificate as the child’s father unless a court has determined either that another man is the child’s biological father, or the mother, the biological father, and her husband have executed affidavits establishing that the husband is not the biological father. The other challenged statute provides that when a child is born to an unmarried woman, only she will be listed on the original birth certificate, but a new birth certificate can be issued listing the biological father if the child is “legitimated” by the biological parents subsequently marrying, or a court determines who is the biological fathers.

 

The court insisted that both statutes are clearly intended to record historical facts about the biological parents of a child, and that the state has a legitimate reason to want the original birth certificate to correctly list these historical facts. “In our analysis of the statutes presented above,” wrote Justice Hart, “it is the nexus of the biological mother and the biological father of the child that is to be truthfully recorded on the child’s birth certificate.

 

Quoting from an affidavit submitted by Melinda Allen, the state’s Vital Records Registrar, the court adopted her contention that the recordation of biological parents was “critical” to the department’s “identification of public health trends,” and she asserted that “it can be critical to an individual’s identification of personal health issues and genetic conditions.” She noted that in adoption and surrogacy situations, the biological parents are listed on original birth certificates, which are then “sealed” when new certificates are issued showing adoptive or intended parents, since the state deems it essential that a permanent record of biological parentage be preserved.

 

Justice Hart said that Judge Fox had “conflated distinct categories of marriage, parental rights, and vital records,” and that the issue in this case was not who can be a parent but rather who must be listed on a birth certificate. “On the record presented,” she wrote, “we cannot say that naming the nonbiological spouse on the birth certificate of the child is an interest of the person so fundamental that the State must accord the interest its respect under either statute.”

 

As to an equal protection challenge, the court found that the same-sex spouse is not similarly situated to the husband, and “it does not violate equal protection to acknowledge basic biological truths”. In this case, the majority found, “the challenged classification serves important governmental objectives” – the factual record of biological parentage for the reasons asserted by Melinda Allen in her affidavit.

 

The court pointed out that there was another statute that might be invoked in this situation, governing intended fathers in cases involving “artificial insemination.” In such cases, if the mother’s husband consented in writing to her insemination with donated sperm, the child would be “deemed the legitimate natural child of the woman and the woman’s husband” and he would be listed on the birth certificate.

 

At oral argument in this case, counsel for Dr. Smith conceded that this statute violated equal protection, since in this case both the husband and the same-sex spouse of the birth mother were not biologically related to the child, and thus similarly situated.   Smith’s attorney argued that if a case was brought under that statute, the court “could resolve many of the concerns raised by the [women] by amending the wording of the statute,” but Justice Hart rejected this suggestion, insisting that “this court is not a legislative body and it cannot change the wording of the statute.”  Furthermore, since the plaintiffs did not invoke the artificial insemination statute in this case – possibly because they did not have written authorization for the insemination procedure as required by the statute – the trial court did not rule on the statute’s constitutionality, so the issue of its constitutionality was not properly before the court.

 

In a concluding paragraph, the court “admonished” Judge Fox for having made a public statement that if the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay of his order in this case, it would be depriving people of their constitutional rights, and that the court had deprived people of their constitutional rights in a separate matter. “A remark made to gain the attention of the press and to create public clamor undermines ‘public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality,’ not only of this court, but also of the entire judiciary,” wrote Hart, and Fox was formally “admonished” for “his inappropriate comments made while performing the duties of his judicial office.”

 

Chief Justice Howard Brill, in a separate opinion, agreed with the majority that Obergefell was a narrow holding that same-sex couples have a right to marry, and thus did not directly settle the question of birth certificates. However, he wrote, “The question here is the broader impact of that ruling as it affects birth certificates,” and, he wrote, “The logical extension of Obergefell, mandated by the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, is that a same-sex married couple is entitled to a birth certificate on the same basis as an opposite-sex married couple,” because “the right to a birth certificate is a corollary to the right to a marriage license.”  He prefaced his opinion with a quote from the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and concluded by arguing that it was up to the legislature to amend the existing laws to come into compliance with Obergefell.  “The times they are a-changin’,” he wrote.  “All three branches of the government must change accordingly.  It is time to heed the call.”

 

In her separate opinion, Justice Rhonda K. Wood joined the court in reversing the case on the ground of “prudential-mootness” because the plaintiff couples had received their revised birth certificates on the order of Judge Fox. At the same time, she wrote, “I encourage the legislature to address the relevant birth certificate statutes in the upcoming session to avoid a plethora of litigation and confusion for the courts.”  She pointed out that this litigation had actually stimulated the Health Department to modify its procedures, noting that Allen’s affidavit stated that the department “will issue birth certificates listing both same-sex parents if the hospital submits documentation reflecting that fact,” although the parties disputed at oral argument about how consistently this new policy was being implemented.  She also noted Smith’s concession at the oral argument that the artificial insemination statute, as written, violated equal protection, and that if the department administers it appropriately, “any legal challenge in this regard would be moot.”  Judge Wood emphasized the fluidity of the situation on the ground and the likelihood that things had changed since Allen made her affidavit.  This, to her, would justify the court as treating the appeal as moot and sending the case back to the circuit court for a new hearing to determine the current facts, which might make it unnecessary to issue a constitutional ruling.  However, departing from the majority, she wrote that in her view, “states cannot constitutionally deny same-sex couples the benefits to marital status, which include equal access to birth certificates,” and suggested that the legislature should amend the statute to comply with this conclusion.

 

Justice Paul Danielson dissented totally from the majority opinion, stating that he would affirm Judge Fox’s ruling, agreeing that Smith and Obergefell settled the matter and the statutes as written were clearly unconstitutional.

 

Justices Wood and Danielson dissented from the majority’s admonishment of Judge Fox. Justice Wood merely stated that she had not “participated” in the majority’s decision to admonish the judge. Justice Danielson wrote at length, arguing that the admonishment violated Judge Fox’s constitutional free speech rights, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that “the operations of the courts and the judicial conduct of judges [are] matters of the utmost public concern.” The Supreme Court “has cautioned against repressing speech under the guise of promoting public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary,” wrote Danielson.  “In short,” he concluded, “the fact that members of this court have personally taken offense to the circuit judge’s remarks is not a sufficient basis for suggesting that those remarks violate our disciplinary rules.”

Arkansas Supreme Court Reverses Visitation Restriction on Gay Dad

Posted on: November 22nd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A sharply divided Arkansas Supreme Court voted 4-3 to reverse the circuit court’s requirement that a gay dad’s same-sex partner not be present when he has overnight visitation with his youngest son.  Finding that, contrary to the view of the circuit judge, Arkansas does not have a “blanket rule” requiring such a restriction, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the circuit court for a determination whether allowing the partner to be present would be in the best interest of the boy.  Moix v. Seventeenth Division Libby Moix, 2013 Ark. 478, 2013 Ark. LEXIS 569, 2013 WL 6118520 (Nov. 21, 2013).  The ACLU represents John Moix in his appeal of the circuit court’s ruling.

John and Libby Moix were divorced in 2004.  As part of their settlement agreement, they shared joint custody of their three sons, who were to live with their mother and have liberal visitation with their father, a pharmacist.  The agreement, incorporated in the divorce decree, contained the usual language that neither party was to have overnight guests of the opposite sex during overnight visitation of the children.  But soon after the divorce, John acquired a same-sex partner, Chad Cornelius, a nurse, who began to live with him.  This led Libby to seek a modification of the court order, as she claimed that it was harmful for the children to be exposed to their father’s “illicit relationship” with Chad.  New negotiations ensued, resulting in a continuation of the custody arrangement for the two older boys (who are twins), but giving Libby full custody of the younger boy, R.M., then age 5, and providing that there be no overnight visitation with R.M.

However, it seems that this restriction was not followed by the parties, as R.M. continued to have overnight visits with his father (and Chad), during which John says he and Chad used separate bedrooms and never displayed physical affection in R.M.’s presence.  However, late in 2009 or early in 2010 John became addicted to prescription drugs, had a hit-and-run accident, and ended up getting inpatient treatment while working through issues concerning his pharmacist’s license.  He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and went on a recovery program that required frequent drug-testing.  However, in 2010 Libby remarried and informed John that because R.M. now had a new father, he no longer needed John, and she sharply cut back on visitation.  This prompted John, who claimed to have recovered from his addiction, having remained totally sober and passed every drug test, to seek a new order from the court modifying the visitation provisions so that he could have more frequent and overnight visitation.

Under Arkansas law, a court will not reopen a custody/visitation order unless there has been a material change of circumstances since the prior order was made.  In this case, John pointed to Libby’s remarriage and sharp restriction in his visitation, as well as his successful treatment and new abstemious lifestyle, as justifying the court modifying the order.

After hearing testimony from the parties and several other witnesses, the circuit judge concluded that John should get increased visitation with his son.  John presented several witnesses who testified about his character, Chad’s character, and the relationship of the two men and their children.  (Chad is also a divorced father.)  Chad’s ex-wife also testified in support of the application to remove the restriction, praising him as a wonderful father.  Chad’s 16-year-old son has formed a close friendly relationship with R.M., which is adversely affected by the restriction as well.  After concluding that there had been a material change in circumstances, the circuit court concluded that it was in R.M.’s best interest to have more time with John, including one overnight a week.  However, the circuit judge said that the court was required by the public policy of Arkansas to impose a “non-cohabitation restriction” that would prevent Chad from being present during any overnight visits.

According to the Supreme Court opinion by Justice Cliff Hoofman, “The court noted that appellant and Chad were in a long-term committed relationship, that they had resided together since at least 2007, and that Chad posed ‘no threat to the health, safety, or welfare’ of R.M.  Other than the prohibition on unmarried cohabitation with a romantic partner in the presence of a minor child, the circuit court found no other factors present to militate against overnight visitation in this case.”  The circuit court had also rejected John’s argument that the non-cohabitation requirement violated the federal and state constitutions.

John appealed this order to the Supreme Court, arguing that the restriction violated his constitutional rights, and alternatively that the circuit court had misconstrued Arkansas law.  Justice Hoofman, observing that the court avoids constitutional rulings if it can resolve a case on other grounds, wrote that the majority of the Supreme Court agreed with John that the circuit court had misconstrued Arkansas law.

Hoofman reviewed several prior Arkansas decisions showing that the courts had departed from a strict observance of a no-cohabitation rule.  He referred to a 1999 decision, Campbell v. Campbell, in which “this court made it clear that the purpose of the non-cohabitation provisions are to promote a stable environment for the children and not merely to monitor a parent’s sexual conduct.  We have also repeatedly held, however, that the primary consideration in domestic relations cases is the welfare and best interest of the children and that all other considerations are secondary.  Therefore, we have emphasize in more recent cases that the policy against romantic cohabitation in the presence of children must be considered under the circumstances of each particular case and in light of the best interest of the children.”  Thus, the court agreed with John that “the public policy against romantic cohabitation is not a ‘blanket ban,’ as it may not override the primary consideration for the circuit court in such cases, which is determining what is in the best interest of the children involved.”

In this case, the circuit court’s factual findings suggested that the only barrier to allowing Chad to be present during visitation was the court’s perception that a public policy rule required it.  Thus, wrote Hoofman, the circuit court never made a finding on whether it was in R.M.’s best interest to impose the non-cohabitation requirement in this case, so the matter would have to be returned to the circuit court for such a finding.  The court also rejected Libby’s argument that there had not been a material change in circumstances that would justify the court modifying its prior order, under which there was to be no overnight visitation.

The three dissenting judges all agreed that John had failed to show the necessary material change in circumstances to justify reopening the visitation order.  They also disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the circuit judge had failed to make a “best interest” determination.  Justice Karen R. Baker quoted from the circuit judge’s opinion: “The circuit court stated, in speaking about the noncohabitation provision, ‘The best interest dictates that that be the continued policy of this court, in my opinion.  So that will be the order of the court.’  It is clear to me,” continued Baker, “that the circuit court did determine that the noncohabitation provision was in the best interest of the child.”  In a separate dissent, Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson argued that the non-cohabitation ruled was well-established, and had not been abandoned in prior cases, and agreed with the other dissenting opinion that the circuit judge had adequately addressed the best interest issue in concluding that the restriction should apply in this case.

Moix’s lawyers on this appeal include Holly Dickson of the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and Leslie Cooper and James Esseks from the nationl ACLU LGBT Rights Project.