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Arizona Supreme Court Holds Parental Presumption Applies to Lesbian Married Couples

Posted on: September 19th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Resolving a difference of views between two panels of the state’s intermediate Court of Appeals, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on September 19 that state statutes providing that the husband of a woman who gives birth to a child after undergoing donor insemination with the husband’s consent is a legal parent of the child must extend equally to the wife of a woman who gives birth to a child after undergoing anonymous donor insemination with her wife’s consent. The ruling in McLaughlin v. McLaughlin, 2017 WL 4126939, is a logical application of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2017, ruling in Pavan v. Smith, which dealt affirmatively with the related question whether a state must recognize the parental status of a same-sex spouse by listing her as a parent on the child’s birth certificate, and of course was ultimately governed by the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.

The Supreme Court made clear in Pavan that the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry, earlier recognized by the Court in Obergefell in 2015, is not just about the right to marry and have other states recognize the marriage, but also about the right to enjoy all the benefits and be subject to all the obligations of marriage on an equal basis with different-sex couples.  Applying this principal to an Arizona parentage statute that, by its terms, only applies to the parental rights of men, the Arizona court adopted a gender-neutral construction of the statute, rejecting the argument by one partially dissenting judge that correcting the statute’s constitutional flaw should be left to the legislature.

Kimberly and Suzan were married in California in 2008, during the five-month period between the California Supreme Court’s In re Marriage Cases decision and the adoption of Proposition 8, which enacted a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to different-sex couples.  The California Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the same-sex marriages contracted during that five-month period, such as the McLaughlin marriage, were fully valid under California law.  The women decided to have a child together.  Suzan went through donor insemination, but unsuccessfully.  Kimberly then went through the procedure and became pregnant.  They moved to Arizona during the pregnancy.

Before the birth of their child, they signed a joint parenting agreement in February 2011, in which they declared that Suzan would be a “co-parent” of the child, stating: “Kimberly McLaughlin intends for Suzan McLaughlin to be a second parent to her child, with the same rights, responsibilities, and obligations that a biological parent would have to her child” and that “should the relationship between us end, it is the parties’ intention that the parenting relationship between Suzan McLaughlin and the child shall continue with shared custody, regular visitation, and child support proportional to custody time and income.” State courts generally take the position that such parenting contracts, while evidence of the intent of the parties, is not binding on the court in a subsequent custody determination during a divorce, where the court’s legal role is to determine custody and visitation issues based on the court’s evaluation of the child’s best interests. The women also executed wills naming Suzanne as a part of the child, a boy who was born in June 2011.

Kimberly, a doctor, worked to support the family, and Suzan stayed at home to care for the baby. By the time the child was almost two years old in 2013, the women’s relationship had deteriorated and Kimberly moved out with the child, cutting off Suzan’s contact with her son.  Suzan then filed petitions in state court seeking dissolution of the marriage and legal decision-making and parenting time with the child.  She couldn’t file for a divorce, because Arizona did not recognize same-sex marriages at that time.  She included a constitutional challenge to the state’s anti-gay marriage laws in her lawsuit, and the state intervened to defend its laws.

While Suzan’s case was pending, a federal district court in Arizona declared the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, a result upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court subsequently denied in November 2014 an attempt by other states in the circuit to get the 9th Circuit’s marriage equality rulings reversed.  Of course, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling in Obergefell made clear that Arizona would have to recognize Suzan and Kimberly’s California marriage under its divorce and custody laws.  The state dropped its intervention in the case, and Suzan’s lawsuit turned into a divorce case.  But the question remained about her status as a parent to the child, to whom she is not biologically related.

The trial judge in Pima County, Lori B. Jones, confronted a parentage statute stating that “a man is presumed to be the father of the child if he and the mother of the child were married at any time in the ten months immediately preceding the birth or the child is born within ten months after the marriage is terminated.” The parental status under the statute is legal, not biological, although a man could rebut the legal presumption by showing that another man was the biological father or that his wife had conceived through donor insemination without his consent. However, the Arizona laws made clear that if a husband consented to his wife’s donor insemination, he would be presumed to be the child’s legal father.  The problem was the gendered language of the statute.

Wrote Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales in describing the trial court’s reasoning in ruling in favor of Suzan, “Based on Obergefell, the court reasoned that it would violate Suzan’s Fourteenth Amendment rights not to afford her the same presumption of paternity that applies to a similarly situated man in an opposite-sex marriage.”  Judge Jones also concluded that in this kind of case the birth mother should not be allowed to attempt to rebut the presumption where it was undisputed that her same-sex spouse had consented to the insemination process and would be obligated to contribute to the support of the child.

Kimberly sought relief from the court of appeals, which was denied. That court both agreed with Judge Jones’ reasoning on the Fourteenth Amendment issue and further reasoned that Kimberly should be “equitably estopped from rebutting Suzan’s presumption of parentage.”  Equitable estoppel is a legal doctrine that courts invoke to prevent a party from attempting to assert a legal right that would be contrary to their prior representations and actions.  In this case, since Kimberly consented to the insemination and contracted with Suzan to recognize her full parental rights toward the child, she could not now turned around and attempt to avoid those actions by showing that Suzan was not the child’s biological father, which Suzan clearly is not.

After the court of appeals issued it opinion in this case, a different division of the state’s court of appeals released a contrary ruling in Turner v. Steiner, 242 Ariz. 494 (2017). By a 2-1 vote, that court “concluded that a female same-sex spouse could not be presumed a legal parent [under the statute] because the presumption is based on biological differences between men and women and Obergefell does not require courts to interpret paternity statutes in a gender-neutral manner.”

The Arizona Supreme Court granted Kemberly’s petition to appeal the court of appeals ruling because application of the parentage statute to same-sex marriages “is a recurring issue of statewide importance.”

Chief Justice Bales’s opinion for the court made clear that one could easily resolve this dispute in favor of Suzan without even referring to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pavan, because the earlier Obergefell opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy addressed all the salient issues in very clear language.  The idea that Obergefell required only that states allow same-sex couples to marry and recognize as valid legally-contracted same-sex marriages from other states was contrary to the language and reasoning of the Supreme Court.  “In Obergefell,” wrote Bales, “the Court repeatedly framed both the issue and its holding in terms of whether states can deny same-sex couples the same ‘right’ to marriage afforded opposite-sex couples.”  For example, quoting from Kennedy’s opinion: “The Constitution does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex,” and further, wrote Bales, “noting harms that result from denying same-sex couples the ‘same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples.’”  In particular, the Supreme Court had emphasized the importance to children of same-sex couples have equal recognition of their families.

“Such broad statements reflect that the plaintiffs in Obergefell sought more than just recognition of same-sex marriages,” wrote Bales, noting that the Michigan plaintiffs in one of the cases consolidated before the Court were a same-sex couple who sought to marry to secure the parental status of both of them to the children they were jointly raising, and, continued Bales, “the benefits attendant to marriage were expressly part of the Court’s rationale for concluding that the Constitution does not permit states to bar same-sex couples from marriage ‘on the same terms.’  It would be inconsistent with Obergefell,” he continued, “to conclude that same-sex couples can legally marry but states can then deny them the same benefits of marriage afforded opposite-sex couples.”  The subsequent decision in Pavan, the Arkansas birth certificate case, just drove home the point in the specific context of parental status and rights.

The Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the benefit of the parental presumption that is enjoyed by the spouse of a woman who gives birth is one of the “benefits of marriage” that must be equally afforded to same-sex couples. It rejected Kimberly’s argument, similar to that of the other panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals, that the statute dealt only with biological parentage.  This was never a particularly logical argument, since the overall statutory scheme in Arizona extended the parental presumption to situations where the man was not the child’s biological father, making it conclusive when he had consented to his wife’s insemination with donor sperm.

The court then faced the question whether the statute should just be struck down as unconstitutional, terminating any parental presumption, or extended through a gender-neutral interpretation to apply to same-sex couples. The court decided that extending the statute was more in line with the legislature’s overall purpose than would be striking it down.  The goal, after all, was to support families and solidify parent-child ties, which was best achieved by extending the parental presumption to lesbian couples.  Thus, the court vacated the decision of the court of appeals and affirmed the decision of Pima County Superior Court Judge Jones, upholding Suzan’s parental status and rights, with details to be worked out in the trial court, hopefully by agreement of the ex-spouses.

The court lost one member on this last point, as Justice Clint Bolick argued in partial dissent that the court was exceeding its role by improperly reinterpreting statutory language to cure the constitutional problem. “The marital presumption that the majority finds unconstitutional and rewrites is not, as the majority characterizes it, a ‘state-benefit statute,’” he insisted.  “Rather, it is part of an integrated, comprehensive statute that serves the highly important and wholly legitimate purpose of providing a mechanism to establish a father’s rights and obligations.”  Viewed on its own, he insisted, it was not unconstitutional.  “A paternity statute does not offend the Constitution because only men can be fathers,” he said, pointing to another opinion by Justice Kennedy in a case upholding different rules for determining a child’s U.S. citizenship based on the citizenship of the mother or the father in a marriage between citizens of different countries.  The majority had rejected Kimberly’s reliance on this decision, but Bolick contended that “it is not the paternity statute that is unconstitutional, but rather the absence of a mechanism to provide parenthood opportunities to single-sex couples on equal terms appropriate to their circumstances.”  He would leave it to the legislature to fix the problem.  Bolick would send the case to the trial court to be decided without any parental presumption, presumably (since he doesn’t spell it out)  leaving the trial court to determine whether it was in the best interest of the child for the woman who was formerly married to the child’s birth mother to have decision-making and visitation rights.

Suzan is represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, whose legal director, Shannon Minter, argued the case in the Arizona Supreme Court, assisted by staff attorneys Emily Haan and Catherina Sakimora, with local counsel Claudia D. Work of Campbell Law Group in Phoenix. Kimberly is represented by Keith Berkshire and Erica L. Gadberry of Berkshire Law Office in Phoenix.   Several amicus briefs were filed with the court, including briefs from the ACLU, a University of Arizona law school clinic, and a group of Arizona Family Law Practitioners.