U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman issued a decision on December 10 in Edwards v. Orr, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173801, 2013 WL 6490577 (N.D. Ill.), a class action suit brought by Lambda Legal seeking a judicial order allowing “medically critical plaintiffs” in same-sex couples to get marriage licenses in advance of the official June 1, 2014, implementation date for the same-sex marriage amendment signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn on November 20. Because the law was passed during the “veto session” of the legislature, it may not go into effect until June 1 as a matter of Illinois constitutional law, but Lambda Legal argued in its complaint that because Illinois’ ban on same-sex marriage violates the federal 14th Amendment, the court can order county clerks to issue marriage licenses before that date.
Lambda’s argument was persuasive to Judge Coleman, who commented that Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan supports Lambda’s request that the court provide injunctive relief for “the named plaintiffs and the putative subclass of medically critical plaintiffs” that would be affected by such an order. Lambda asked the court to certify this as a class action brought on behalf of all similarly-situated same-sex couples who seek to marry in Illinois before June 1.
The two couples who are seeking immediate injunctive relief — Elvie Jordan and Challis Gibbs, and Ronald Dorfman and Kenneth Ilio — presented compelling circumstances to the court. Both couples have been together more than twenty years, and both had already entered Illinois civil unions when they became available. Gibbs has metastatic cancer and spent November in the hospital. Dorfman suffers congestive heart failure and has uncefrtain treatment prospects. Both couples argue that they might not make it until June 1 and need to marry before then.
As in all cases seeking immediate relief before the full trial process can be completed, the plaintiffs here have to show that they would be likely to succeed on the merits of their legal claim at trial, that denying them preliminary relief would cause irreparable injury, that money damages after the fact would provide an inadequate remedy, and that the balance of harms and the public interest weighs in their favor. Judge Coleman found that all these tests were met.
First, reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court’s treatment of gay rights claims culminating in U.S. v. Windsor last June, she found that the plaintiffs “are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the provisions of the current Illinois law that deny them the right to marry based solely on their sexual orientation, as applied, violates their constitutional right to equal protection.” She observed that the 1996 amendment to the Illinois marriage law that specifically reserved marriage for different-sex couples “is clearly intended to single out gays and lesbians for disparate treatment based solely on their sexual orientation.” Furthermore, she pointed out that the recent enactment of same-sex marriage “is an express repudiation of the state’s earlier position and undermines the traditionally invoked justifications for the prohibition on same-sex marriages.” She found that under the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Windsor, denying marriage to same-sex couples “serves no constitutionally legitimate purpose.”
It was easy for Judge Coleman to find that denying an early marriage license would cause irreparable injury that could not be compensated by damages awarded after a trial. If these couples don’t get licenses soon, they may not be able to get married at all. Marriage is a prerequisite to federal rights that are particularly important when a member of a couple is facing impending death, including the right to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the right to file joint income tax returns and enjoy spousal tax benefits, “especially exemptions from certain estate tax obligations,” and eligibility of a surviving spouse for Social Security benefits, all of which would be forfeited if one partner dies before they could get married. “Equally compelling are the intangible personal and emotional benefits that the dignity of equal and official marriage status confers,” wrote Coleman, finding that “unquestionably” the loss of these could not be compensated by monetary damages.
Finally, she found the balance of harms and the public interest clearly supported granting the requested relief. As Illinois has legislated in favor of same sex marriage, “any erroneous decision here would only result in allowing a relatively few people to marry a short period of time sooner,” and the harm to those individuals in denying them marriage “would be far weightier since a denial of relief could effectively deny them the right to marry at all if one member of the couple passes away before June 1, 2014.” Furthermore, the Illinois legislature has clearly decided that letting same-sex couples marry is in the public interest, or they would not have passed the new law. “This court can conceive of no reason why the public interest would be disserved by allowing a few couples facing terminal illness to wed a few months earlier than the timeline would currently allow,” she concluded.
However, the concern remains that if Judge Coleman certifies this as a class action in favor of all similarly situated couples, there would remain the problem of deciding which couples that apply for this relief would be qualified. Thus, she made her order in favor of plaintiffs “contingent upon an agreement between the parties of a sufficiently delineated subclass or a satisfactory method of implementation of this Order”, and set a status hearing for Monday, December 16, to determine whether such an agreement had been reached.
The named plaintiffs in the case also include two other couples who are not part of this motion for immediate temporary relief, presumably because their medical concerns are not so immediately pressing. A small army of Lambda Legal staff attorneys and Lambda and ACLU cooperating attorneys with various Chicago law firms joined together to bring this case, with lead attorney Camilla Taylor from Lambda Legal’s Midwest Regional Office.