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Texas Supreme Court Refuses to Dismiss Challenge to Spousal Benefits for Houston City Employees

Posted on: June 30th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In a clear misreading of the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling from 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges, especially as elucidated just days ago by that Court in Pavan v. Smith, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously refused on June 30 to dismiss a lawsuit by two disgruntled Houston taxpayers who argue that the city of Houston may not provide employee benefits for the same-sex spouses of its employees. The case is Pidgeon v. Turner, 2017 Tex. LEXIS 654.

Instead, while affirming a ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals that had reversed the preliminary injunction that a Texas trial court issued in 2014 against payment of the benefits, the Texas Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for it to decide whether the Obergefell decision obligates Houston to provide equal benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, and also to consider the taxpayers’ argument that the city should be required to “claw back” the value of benefits that were paid prior to the Obergefell decision, on the theory that Texas’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages contracted out-of-state was valid until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was announced.

In Pavan v. Smith, the Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled that the Obergefell decision did not require the state to treat same-sex spouses the same as different-sex spouses for listing as a parent on the birth certificate of a child born to their spouse. Reversing that ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said: “As we explained [in Obergefell], a State may not ‘exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.’ Indeed, in listing those terms and conditions — the ‘rights, benefits, and responsibilities’ to which same-sex couples, no less than opposite-sex couples, must have access — we expressly identified ‘birth and death certificates.’ That was no accident…”

Thus, the Supreme Court made clear in Pavan, contrary to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s unduly narrow reading of Obergefell, that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits of marriage as different-sex couples. In listing some of the rights and benefits of marriage that same-sex couples had wrongly been denied, the Obergefell court specifically mentioned health insurance, an employee benefit that is at issue in the Texas case.  Thus, to claim that the Obergefell opinion fails to deal with this issue explicitly is totally disingenuous.

And yet, Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd wrote for the Texas Supreme Court in Pidgeon v. Turner, “The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons, and – unlike the Fifth Circuit in DeLeon – it did not hold that the Texas DOMAs are unconstitutional.” “DeLeon” refers to the Texas marriage equality decision that was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit a few days after the Obergefell decision, holding that the Texas ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional in light of Obergefell.

Instead of cutting through procedural complications and saving everybody involved lots of wasted time and money through prolonged litigation, the Texas court has now repeated the error of the Arkansas Supreme Court by insisting that the Obergefell ruling does not clearly require “the same” rights, benefits and responsibilities, and, incredibly, cited in support of this point the Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 to grant review of a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Human Rights Commission, which concerns a totally different question: whether a baker has a 1st Amendment right to discriminate against a same-sex couple by refusing an order for a wedding cake in violation of a state anti-discrimination law.  The Supreme Court did not address in Obergefell the question of reconciling a potential clash between anti-discrimination laws and the rights of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech enjoyed by non-governmental entities and individuals.  But the Court most emphatically did address the issue that governmental actors, bound by the 14th Amendment, must accord the same rights to all married couples, whether same-sex or different-sex, and it reiterated that point in Pavan.

The Texas case dates back to 2013, when Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker, an out lesbian, reacted to the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision by extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees who had gone out of state to get married. At the time, Texas had both a state Defense of Marriage Act and a similar constitutional amendment, and Houston had a charter provision limiting municipal employee benefits to legal spouses and children of employees.  Relying on an advisory opinion from the city attorney, Parker concluded that after Windsor it was unconstitutional to refuse to recognize those out-of-state marriages.

Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, Houston taxpayers who identified themselves as devout Christians who did not want their tax money going to subsidize same-sex marriages, filed a lawsuit challenging the benefits extension in December 2013, and refiled in October 2014 after the first case was dismissed for “want of prosecution” while the parties were wrangling about the city’s attempt to remove the case to federal court. Pidgeon and Hicks claimed, based on state and city law, that the benefits extension was “expending significant public funds on an illegal activity.”  They persuaded a local trial judge to issue a preliminary injunction against continued payment of the benefits while the case was pending, and the city appealed.

The Texas Court of Appeals sat on the appeal while marriage equality litigation proceeded both in the federal courts in Texas – the DeLeon v. Perry case – and nationally. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, the 5th Circuit, affirming a federal district court ruling, held in DeLeon that the Texas laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

Then the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s preliminary injunction in the Pidgeon case and sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to decide the case “consistent with DeLeon.” Pidgeon and Hicks sought to appeal this ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, but were initially turned down by that court.  Then the top Republican elected officials in the state – the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general – and a bunch of other non-parties filed papers with the Supreme Court urging it to change its mind and allow the appeal, which the court eventually agreed to do.

In its June 30 ruling, the court buried itself in procedural complications. Based on its incorrect conclusion that the Obergefell decision, as amplified by the Pavan ruling, does not decide the merits of this case, and further giving credence to the plaintiffs’ argument that Obergefell cannot be construed to have any retroactive effect because “the Supreme Court acknowledged that it was attributing a new meaning to the Fourteenth Amendment based on ‘new insights and societal understandings,”  the court opined that Pidgeon and Hicks should have an opportunity to “develop” their argument before the trial court.  This contention on retroactivity is not the view that has been taken by other courts, including some that have retroactively applied Obergefell to find that cohabiting same-sex couples in states that still have a common law marriage doctrine can be held to have been legally married prior to that ruling.  Indeed, the federal government even gave Windsor retroactive application, allowing same-sex couples to file for tax refunds for earlier years on the basis that the Internal Revenue Service’s refusal to recognize their state-law marriages under DOMA had been unconstitutional.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Pidgeon that the Texas Court of Appeals should not have directed the trial court to rule “consistent with DeLeon” because, technically, the state trial courts are not bound by constitutional rulings of the federal courts of appeals, only by U.S. Supreme Court rulings on questions of federal law. DeLeon could be a “persuasive” precedent, but not a “binding” precedent.  This merits a big “so what?”  After all, the real question in this case is whether Obergefell requires that married same-sex couples are entitled to the “same benefits” as different-sex couples from their municipal employer, and the answer to that could not be more clear, especially after Pavan v. Smith.  (Indeed, Justice Gorsuch’s dissenting opinion in Pavan repeats the same mistaken assertion — that Obergefell does not clearly require the “same” rights and benefits which the Court responds to by quoting from Obergefell to the opposite effect – and is just as disingenuous as Justice Boyd’s decision for the Texas court.)

Now the case goes back to the trial court in Houston, where the outcome should be dictated by Pavan v. Smith and Obergefell and the court should dismiss this case. But, since this is taking place in Texas, where contempt for federal law is openly expressed by public officials, who knows how it will turn out?