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Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Seeks Reversal of His Old Court’s Opinion

Posted on: September 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

On June 30, the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling claiming that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality decision from June 2015 did not necessarily require state and local governments to treat same-sex and different-sex marriages the same for government employee benefits purposes. On September 15, asserting that his old court’s decision was clearly wrong, retired Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace B. Jefferson and lawyers from his Austin firm, Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the ruling.

Jefferson, an African-American Republican, was appointed to the court in 2001 by Governor Rick Perry, who then elevated him in 2004 to the Chief Justice position, where he served until retirement in October 2013. Justice Jefferson was the first African-American to serve on Texas’s highest court.  His law firm was retained by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to represent the City in petitioning the Supreme Court for review.

The case arose in 2013 when then-Mayor Annise Parker, an out lesbian and longtime LGBT rights activist, reacted to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act by asking her City Attorney whether the reasoning of that case would require the City of Houston to recognize same-sex marriages of City employees. Although Texas did not allow same-sex marriages then, some City employees had gone out of state to marry and were seeking health care benefits for their spouses under the City’s employee benefits plan.  Parker got the answer she was seeking and ordered an extension of benefits to City employees’ same-sex spouses.

Two local Republican activists, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, sued the City and Mayor Parker, seeking an injunction against extension of the benefits. They persuaded a state trial judge to issue a preliminary injunction, barring the benefits from going into effect pending the outcome of the litigation.  The court relied on the Texas constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage, which had not yet been challenged in court as of that time.  The City appealed the preliminary injunction.

While the appeal was pending before the Texas Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Obergefell case, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which is based in Houston, promptly affirmed a 2014 marriage equality ruling by the federal district court in San Antonio, DeLeon v. Abbott, declaring unconstitutional the Texas same-sex marriage bans that had been the basis for the trial court’s injunction. Then the Texas Court of Appeals issued a ruling reversing the trial court’s preliminary injunction and instructing that court to decide the case consistent with the DeLeon decision.  Pidgeon and Hicks appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

 

After extensively considering the matter, the Texas Supreme Court announced that it would deny review of the Court of Appeals ruling. This outraged Texas Republican leaders, including Governor Abbott, and the state Republican Party went to work encouraging people to bombard the court with communications urging it to reconsider and grant review, and then to reverse the court of appeals.  Perhaps it is not surprising, considering the very political nature of that court, made up entirely of Republican justices (since Texas has not had a Democratic governor since George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards in 1994), that the court succumbed to these demands, reconsidered, and granted review.

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Pavan v. Smith, a challenge to the refusal by Arkansas officials to list both members of married lesbian couples on birth certificates when one of them gave birth to a child through donor insemination. In that ruling, the Supreme Court made abundantly clear that the Obergefell decision had effectively decided the Pavan case by holding that same-sex couples had the same constitutional rights regarding marriage as different sex couples, extending to the entire “constellation of rights” that went with marriage.  The Supreme Court did not even bother to hold oral argument in the Pavan case, simultaneously granting the petition to review an adverse decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court and issuing a brief memorandum opinion, from which three members of the Court dissented in an argumentative and disingenuous memorandum attributed to recently-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch and signed by Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.  The Pavan opinion left no doubt that same-sex and different-sex married couples must be treated the same by government entities under the 14th Amendment.

But it was evidently not clear to a majority of the Texas Supreme Court, which just days later issued its ruling, reversing the court of appeals and sending the case back to the trial court in Houston, with instructions to give Pidgeon and Hicks an opportunity to try to convince the court that the City of Houston was still required to refuse recognition to the marriages of same-sex couples under its benefits plan, relying on the Texas constitutional and statutory ban that was declared unconstitutional by the 5th Circuit. A majority of the Texas Supreme Court clings to the idea that constitutional rulings by the lower federal courts are not binding on the Texas state courts.    The Texas court suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell could be interpreted narrowly to address solely the question whether states must allow same-sex couples to marry and must recognize same-sex marriages contracted from out of state, but that the Obergefell opinion said nothing directly about what rights must be accorded to same-sex married couples.  This is, as Justice Jefferson’s Petition to the Supreme Court makes clear, blatantly untrue.  It treats the Pavan ruling as if Justice Gorsuch’s dissent was speaking for the Court.

Justice Jefferson’s Petition on behalf of Mayor Turner and the City of Houston makes mincemeat out of the work product of his former colleagues, quoting clear language from Obergefell which, among other things, specifically mentioned health insurance as an example of how the denial of marriage to same-sex couples violated their fundamental right to marry and to be treated equally with different-sex couples.

This case is just as clear as Pavan was, and is likely to receive the same treatment from the U.S. Supreme Court, unless that Court finds some procedural or jurisdictional reason to dismiss the Petition without deciding the question presented by the petitioners: “Did the Supreme Court of Texas correctly decide that Obergefell v. Hodges and Pavan v. Smith ‘did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons,’ regardless of whether their marriages are same-sex or opposite-sex?” Some have suggested that because the Texas Supreme Court was ruling only on the validity of a preliminary injunction, the matter is not procedurally ripe for U.S. Supreme Court review, but any attempt to reinstate the preliminary injunction would directly violate the constitutional rights of Houston City employees in clear violation of the Obergefell ruling.

On a parallel track, Lambda Legal filed a federal district court lawsuit in Houston over the summer on behalf of some married LGBT City employees, seeking a declaratory judgment that they are entitled to the same benefits for their spouses that their straight colleagues get. If the Supreme Court does not grant Justice Jefferson’s Petition, it is likely that the matter can be resolved relatively quickly through Lambda’s case, since the City would eagerly comply with an order by the U.S. District Court to provide equal benefits.  This is, at heart, a dispute between the pro-LGBT Houston Democratic city government and the anti-LGBT Republican state government.

 

 

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?

Houston Benefits Dispute May Bring Marriage Equality Issue Back to the Supreme Court

Posted on: January 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Conservatives eager to bring the marriage equality issue back to the U.S. Supreme Court after President Donald J. Trump has had an opportunity to appoint some conservative justices may have found a vehicle to get the issue there in an employee benefits dispute from Houston. On January 20, the Texas Supreme Court announced that it had “withdrawn” its September 2, 2016, order rejecting a petition to review a ruling by the state’s intermediate court of appeals that had implied that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, might require Houston to provide the same spousal health benefits to same-sex as different-sex spouses of City workers.  Instead, announced the Court, it had reinstated the petition for review and scheduled oral argument for March 1, 2017.  Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353 (Tex. 14th Dist. Ct. App., 2015), review denied, sub nom. Pidgeon v. Turner, 2016 WL 4938006 (Texas Supreme Ct., September 2, 2016), No. 16-0688, Order withdrawn, motion for rehearing granted, petition reinstated (Jan. 20, 2017).

The plaintiffs in the Houston benefits case, Houston taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, had filed a motion for rehearing with active support from Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both ardent marriage equality opponents eager to chip away at the marriage equality ruling or even to get it reversed. The Texas Supreme Court’s order denying review had been issued over a fervent dissenting opinion by Justice John Devine, who argued for a limited reading of Obergefell, and the Republican leaders’ amicus brief in support of review channeled Devine’s arguments.

Trump’s nomination of a conservative to fill the seat left vacant when Justice Antonin Scalia died last February would not change the Supreme Court line-up on marriage equality. Obergefell was decided by a 5-4 vote, with Scalia dissenting.  However, it is possible – even likely, if rumors of a possible retirement by Justice Anthony Kennedy at the end of the Court’s 2017-18 Term are accurate – that Trump will get an opportunity to replace the author of the Obergefell decision with a more conservative justice in time for the Court’s 2018-19 Term.  Regardless how the Texas Supreme Court rules on this appeal, its interpretation of the scope of Obergefell could set up a question of federal constitutional law that could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and once the issue gets to the Court, it is possible that the Obergefell dissenters, strengthened in number by new conservative appointees, could take the opportunity to narrow or even overrule the marriage equality decision.

The Houston dispute dates back to 2001, when Houston voters reacted to a City Council move to adopt same-sex partner benefits by approving a City Charter amendment that rejected city employee health benefits for “persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.” In 2001 same-sex couples could not legally marry anywhere in the world, so this effectively denied benefits to any and all same-sex partners of City employees.  Texas was also one of many states that put firm bans on same-sex marriage into its constitution and family law statute.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, an openly-lesbian longtime LGBT rights advocate, announced the extension of health benefits to same-sex spouses of City employees. Although same-sex couples could not then marry in Texas, they could go to any of a number of other states to get married, including California and New York and, most conveniently as a matter of geography, Iowa.  Parker and her City Attorney concluded that under the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the DOMA case, United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, Houston’s city government was obligated to recognize lawfully contracted same-sex marriages of city employees and provide them the same benefits that were accorded to other city employees.  Federal constitutional requirements would override the City Charter ban as well as state law.

Taxpayers Pidgeon and Hicks filed suit in state court, contending that Parker’s action violated the Texas Constitution and statutes, as well as the city charter amendment. They persuaded the trial judge to issue a temporary injunction against the benefits extension while the case was pending.  The City appealed that ruling to the 14th District Court of Appeals, which sat on the appeal as new marriage equality litigation, sparked by the Windsor ruling, went forward in dozens of states including Texas.  A Texas federal district judge ruled in 2014 in the De Leon case that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.  The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the state’s appeal of that ruling in January 2015.  After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in June 2015, the 5th Circuit issued its decision upholding the Texas district court, 791 F.3d 619, which in turn ordered Texas to allow and recognize same-sex marriages.  This prompted the 14th District Court of Appeals to issue its decision on July 28, 2015.

The Court of Appeals ruling in Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353, said, “Because of the substantial change in the law regarding same-sex marriage since the temporary injunction was signed, we reverse the trial court’s temporary injunction and remand for proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  The court did not rule on the merits, merely sending the case back to the trial court to issue a decision “consistent with” the federal marriage equality rulings.  What those rulings may require in terms of city employee benefits is a matter of some dispute.

Pidgeon and Hicks petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to review this court of appeals decision, but the court denied that petition on September 2, 2016, with Justice Devine dissenting. Devine argued that the court should have taken up the case because, in his view, the majority of the court “assumed that because the United States Supreme Court declared couples of the same sex have a fundamental right to marry, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires cities to offer the same benefits to same-sex spouses of employees as to opposite-sex spouses.  I disagree.” He continued: “Marriage is a fundamental right.  Spousal benefits are not.  Thus, the two issues are distinct, with sharply contrasting standards for review.  Because the court of appeals’ decision blurs these distinctions and threatens constitutional standards long etched in our nation’s jurisprudence, I would grant review.”

Justice Devine was mistaken as to the court of appeals decision. That court did not hold in its July 28 ruling that same-sex spouses of Houston employees are entitled to health benefits from the city.  Rather, it ruled that because of “substantial change in the law” since the temporary injunction was issued, the injunction should be reversed and the case sent back to the trial court for “proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  If the trial court, on reconsideration, concluded that Obergefell and De Leon did not require the City to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, as Justice Devine argued in his dissent, the trial court could still rule in favor of Pidgeon and Hicks.  All the court of appeals directed the trial judge to do was to rethink the case in light of the new federal rulings.

Devine’s argument rests on a very narrow reading of Obergefell.  He interprets the Supreme Court’s decision to be sharply focused on the right of same-sex couples to marry, resting on the Court’s conclusion that the right to marry is a “fundamental right.”  Thus, a state would have to have a “compelling interest” to deny the right, a test that the Supreme Court found was not met.  However, pointed out Devine, the Supreme Court never explicitly said that the federal constitution requires state and local governments to treat all marriages the same, regardless whether they are same-sex or different-sex marriages.  And, he argued, public employees do not have a fundamental constitutional right to receive health insurance benefits from their employer.  Thus, he contended, the state could decide who gets benefits based on its own policy considerations, which the courts should uphold if they satisfy the relatively undemanding “rationality” test that is used when a fundamental right is not at stake.  As to that, he argued that the state’s interest in procreation by married different-sex couples could justify extending benefits to them but not to same-sex couples.

A contrary argument would note that Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell specifically listed health insurance as one of the many benefits associated with marriage that contributed towards the conclusion that the right to marry was a fundamental right because of its importance to the welfare of a couple and their children.  Similarly, Justice Kennedy did not consider the “procreation” argument persuasive to justify denying the right to marry to same-sex couples.  On the other hand, the Supreme Court did not say anywhere in its opinion that states are constitutionally required to treat same-sex and different-sex couples exactly the same in every respect, ignoring any factual distinctions between them.  Justice Devine’s argument seems strained, but not totally implausible, especially in the hands of a conservatively-inclined court.

Timing is everything in terms of getting an issue before the Supreme Court, especially if the aim of Texas conservatives and their anti-LGBT allies around the country is to get the issue there after Trump has had two appointments.  Once the Texas Supreme Court hears oral argument on March 1, it could take as long as it likes to issue a ruling on the appeal, and it could be strategic about holding up a ruling until it looks likely that any Supreme Court appeal would be considered after the 2017-18 Term of the Court has concluded in June 2018.  After the Texas Supreme Court rules, the losing party could take up to 90 days to file a petition in the Supreme Court.  If the petition arrives at the Supreme Court after the end of its term, that Court won’t decide whether to grant review until the beginning of its new term in the fall of 2018, and if the petition is granted, argument would not take place for several months, giving the parties time to brief the merits of the case.  If the Texas Supreme Court decides to affirm the court of appeals, it is highly likely that Pidgeon and Hicks, abetted by Abbott and Paxton, will seek Supreme Court review.  If the Texas Supreme Court reverses, the City of Houston will have to decide whether to seek Supreme Court review, or whether to adopt a wait-and-see attitude while the trial court proceeds to a final ruling on the merits of the case.  And the trial court could well decide, upon sober reflection, that Obergefell compels a ruling against Pidgeon and Hicks, which would put them back in the driver’s seat as to the decision to appeal to the Supreme Court.

If a second Trump appointee was confirmed while all of this was playing out, the case would be heard by a bench with a majority of conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents, one by George H.W. Bush (Clarence Thomas), two by George W. Bush (Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito), and two by Donald Trump. Trump’s appointees would be joining three Republican colleagues who filed or signed dissents in the Windsor and Obergefell cases.  Regardless of how the Petitioner frames the questions posed to the Court, the justices are free to rewrite the question or questions on which they grant review.  If a majority of the newly-constituted Court is eager to revisit Obergefell, they could grant review on the question whether Obergefell was correctly decided.  Based on past history, they could reach that issue if a majority wants to do so without signaling its salience in the Order granting review.

Much of this is conjecture, of course. Justice Devine was a lone voice dissenting from the September 2 order to deny review in this case.  But that order was issued at a time when national pollsters were near unanimous in predicting that Hillary Clinton would be elected and, consequently, would be filling the Scalia vacancy and any others that occurred over the next four years. The political calculus changed dramatically on November 8 when Trump was elected. Even though he has stated that he accepts marriage equality as a “settled issue,” his announced intention to appoint Justices in the image of Scalia and to seek reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Court’s seminal abortion decision from 1973, suggests that he will appoint justices who have a propensity to agree with the Obergefell dissenters that the marriage equality ruling was illegitimate.  (Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his dissent that it had “nothing to do with the Constitution.”)  Although the Court has frequently resisted efforts to get it to reverse highly consequential constitutional decisions, it has occasionally done so, most notably in the LGBT context in its 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down a state sodomy law and overruling its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

After the election, many LGBT rights organizations issued statements to reassure people that marriage equality would not immediately disappear after Trump took office. That remains true.  A constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court can only be changed by the adoption of a constitutional amendment, which Democrats can easily block in Congress, or overruling by the Supreme Court, which requires that a new case come up to the Court at a time when a majority of the Court is receptive to the overruling argument, which seems to be at least two years off from now.  But these statements, including those by this writer, conceded that in the long run it was possible that Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and new appeals headed to the Supreme Court might come together to endanger marriage equality.  This new development in the Houston benefits case shows one way that could happen.

Divided Texas Supreme Court Evades Deciding Gay Divorce Issue

Posted on: June 23rd, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

With a ruling on same-sex marriage from the United States Supreme Court just days away, the Texas Supreme Court finally acted on June 19, 2015, on a pair of appeals argued nineteen months ago in November 2013, holding in State v. Naylor, 2015 Tex. LEXIS 581, that the state’s attorney general did not have standing to appeal an Austin trial judge’s order granting a judgment “intended to be a substitute for a valid and subsisting divorce” to a lesbian couple who had married in Massachusetts, and granting a motion to dismiss an appeal in In re Marriage of J.B. and H.B., in which the Texas Court of Appeals in Dallas had ruled in 2010 that Texas courts lack jurisdiction to rule on divorce petitions from same-sex couples married elsewhere.  The court’s opinion in the Naylor case by Justice Jeffrey V. Brown was joined by four other members of the court, one of whom also penned a concurring opinion.  One member filed a dissenting opinion for himself and three others, arguing against the ruling on standing.  One of the dissenters filed an additional dissenting opinion, arguing at length that the Texas ban on performing or recognizing same-sex marriages does not violate the 14th Amendment.  One member did not participate in the case.

The motion to dismiss the J.B. and H.B. appeal was actually filed by James Scheske, who represented the party seeking an uncontested divorce.  The two men married in Massachusetts in 2006 and moved to Texas in 2008.  Shortly after moving to Texas they ceased to live together, and J.B. filed a petition in Dallas County seeking a property division and that his last name be changed back to his original name as part of a divorce decree.  The state intervened and argued that the court had no jurisdiction to decide the case, but the trial judge, Tena Callahan, issued a ruling on October 1, 2009, holding that the Texas ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and that she could decide the case.  The state appealed that ruling, and the Texas Court of Appeals in Dallas ruled on August 31, 2010, that Judge Callahan was wrong.  An appeal to the Texas Supreme Court followed, and the case was argued, after much delay, in November 2013.  But H.B. subsequently died, and Scheske filed an uncontested motion to dismiss the case, since his client’s marriage had been terminated by death so a divorce decree was no longer needed.  The court granted that motion on June 19 without explanation, but one of the judges noted in his concurring opinion in the Naylor case that the J.B. appeal was “moot” as a result of the death of one of the parties.

Angelique Naylor and Sabina Daly, Texas residents, went to Massachusetts to marry in 2004. Naylor filed a divorce petition in Travis County a few years later.  The women had a child and were operating a business together, so, as Justice Brown explained, “Naylor hoped to obtain a judgment addressing their respective rights, some of which they had already settled in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship.”  Although lawyers from the attorney general’s office were aware of the case and were actively monitoring its progress, they didn’t formally try to intervene until after the trial judge issued his bench ruling incorporating the parties’ settlement agreement into a judgment, which the judge explained “is intended to dispose of all economic issues and liabilities as between the parties whether they are divorced or not.”  The following day, the state petitioned to intervene “to oppose the Original Petition for Divorce and to defend the constitutionality of Texas and federal laws that limit divorce actions to persons of the opposite sex who are married to one another.”  The trial judge rejected this petition as too late, and the Court of Appeals in Austin agreed in 2011.  An appeal to the Texas Supreme Court followed, and it was consolidated with the J.B. appeal and argued on the same day in November 2013.

There was widespread speculation that the Texas Supreme Court, observing all the marriage equality litigation going on in Texas and elsewhere in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s U.S. v. Windsor ruling, had decided not to rule on these appeals until the U.S. Supreme Court settled the constitutional questions around same-sex marriage one way or the other, so the Texas court’s June 19 actions caught many by surprise.  Writing for the majority of the court, Justice Brown agreed with the Court of Appeals that the state lacked standing to appeal the trial court’s judgment.  “Texas courts allow post-judgment intervention only upon careful consideration of any prejudice the prospective intervenor might suffer if intervention is denied, any prejudice the existing parties will suffer as a consequence of untimely intervention, and any other circumstances that may militate either for or against the determination,” he wrote.  In this case, by implication, those considerations weighed against ordering intervention.  Although Justice Brown left it unsaid, it seemed clear that the majority of the court saw little reason to litigate the underlying issue in this case when the U.S. Supreme Court was on the verge of ruling.  He devoted most of his opinion to a close analysis of Texas laws governing post-judgment intervention, and almost none to the underlying question whether same-sex couples can get divorces in Texas, merely stating general agreement with Judge Devine’s analysis described below.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd explained further the underlying rationale for dismissing the appeal.  “I write separately to emphasize a point on which everyone agrees: the State of Texas is not bound by the divorce decree at issue in this case.”  He continued, “The State lacks standing to appeal because it was not a party, it shared no privity or interest with any party, and the trial court’s judgment is not binding on it. . .  As a non-party who is not bound by the judgment, the State has no obligation to give any effect to the trial court’s divorce decree.  In fact, it may be, as the State contends, that our laws prohibit the State and all of its agencies and political subdivisions from giving any effect to the decree.”  Since the state did not recognize the marriage in the first place, and had been taking the position all along in both cases that such out of state same-sex marriages are considered “void” in Texas, the decree was of no consequence to the state.  Judge Boyd’s opinion overlooks the plain fact that the trial judge had not even necessarily considered this to be a divorce decree, but rather a “judgment” incorporating a settlement agreement reached by the parties.   Judge Boyd did comment that the dismissal of the J.B. appeal as moot “leaves the Dallas court’s opinion as the only currently existing Texas law” on the issue whether same-sex couples married elsewhere can get a divorce in Texas, and that ruling, of course, was negative.

Justice Don R. Willett’s dissent argued strongly that the court should have allowed the State to intervene because of the importance of the question.  Justice John P. Devine’s dissent, quite lengthy, plunged into the constitutional merits and argued that the Texas ban on recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions did not violate the 14th Amendment.  In addition to relying on Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act, the provision that was left untouched by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor, which provides that states are not constitutionally required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, he argued that Texas had good policy justifications for refusing to allow same-sex couples to marry and treating out-of-state same-sex marriages as void in Texas.

Ignorant comments by the governor and attorney general in response to the Naylor ruling led to misleading media reports suggesting that the Texas Supreme Court had “upheld” a same-sex divorce sought by Naylor, but clearly the court had done no such thing, merely holding that it was itself without jurisdiction to rule on the state’s argument that the trial court lacked jurisdiction.

Ultimately, these actions by the Texas Supreme Court will be of only passing interest after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.