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Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss South Dakota Marriage Equality Case

Posted on: November 17th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier denied a motion by South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard to dismiss the pending marriage equality case of Rosenbrahn v. Daugaard on November 14.  Although this was not a ruling on the merits of the case, Judge Schreier’s ruling suggests that she will become the second district judge within the jurisdiction of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule for marriage equality.  Following the lead of District Judge Ortrie Smith in his recent Missouri ruling, Judge Schreier found that the 8th Circuit’s decision rejecting a constitutional challenge to Nebraska’s marriage amendment, Citizens v. Equal Protection v. Bruning, did not stand in the way of entertaining a 14th Amendment challenge to South Dakota’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Before getting to Bruning, however, Judge Schreier had to deal with the state’s argument that the case should be dismissed because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1972 in Baker v. Nelson that same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question.”  The judge expressly rejected the recent ruling by the 6th Circuit that Baker remained a controlling precedent for lower federal courts. After noting Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s assertion that a summary affirmance like Baker would remain binding precedent unless it was “overruled by name” or “overruled by outcome,” she noted that the Supreme Court has said that such summary dispositions are not “of the same precedential value as would be an opinion of this Court treating the question on the merits,” and commented, “The Sixth Circuit’s reading of the doctrinal developments exception is too narrow and would effectively eliminate that exception by requiring either an explicit or implicit overruling of a prior decision.  Furthermore, it is difficult to reconcile the Supreme Court’s statement in Windsor that the Constitution protects the moral and sexual choices of homosexual couples, with the idea that state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage do not present a substantial federal question.  Thus, the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning is not as persuasive as the reasoning of the Second, Fourth, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth Circuits on this issue.”

Judge Schreier also discounted the state’s argument that the 8th Circuit had “adopted” the Baker decision by mentioning it in Bruning.  Although it was mentioned in that opinion, there was not “any discussion of the continued validity of Baker or the doctrinal development exception,” she wrote.  “Despite defendants’ contention, Bruning does not compel this court to follow Baker.”

Turning to the 8th Circuit’s Bruning decision, she observed that the plaintiffs had framed that case as “an equal protection case based on a fundamental right of access to the political process,” arguing that by adopting the marriage amendment Nebraska had discriminatorily shut out gay couples from resort to the ordinary political process of seeking marriage equality from the legislature.  The 8th Circuit expressly stated that the plaintiffs were not seeking a ruling that same-sex couples had a right under the 14th Amendment to marry in Nebraska.  It did, however, rule that sexual orientation discrimination does not involve a “suspect classification” and thus the amendment would be evaluated using rationality review.

Acknowledging that she was thus bound not to use heightened scrutiny in ruling on the challenge to South Dakota’s marriage ban on a sexual orientation discrimination theory, the judge found that this did not mandating dismissing the case.  For one thing, she found, the Bruning court had not ruled on whether there is a fundamental right to marry from which same-sex couples are excluded.   “Burning is not dispositive of the central issue before this court,” she wrote, so “Bruning does not preclude plaintiffs from relief as a matter of law.”  Furthermore, she found that since Bruning had not pronounced on this fundamental due process question, “Plaintiffs are not consigned to rational basis review and have a plausible claim for relief with respect to their due process argument.”  That would suffice to reject the motion to dismiss.

However, Judge Schreier went further, exploring the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim.  She found that plaintiffs had stated “a plausible equal protection claim based on the alleged deprivation of a fundamental right where plaintiffs allege the classification is not precisely tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest.”  Furthermore, citing 9th Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon’s concurring opinion in the Idaho/Nevada marriage ruling, she found that plaintiffs also had a plausible “gender discrimination” case.   “At this stage — a motion to dismiss — the court finds that the complaint sufficiently states a claim for relief because it plausibly shows a classification related to gender,” she wrote.  “Even though several courts have rejected the argument that same-sex marriage bans discriminate based on gender because the plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence of invidious gender discrimination to prevail on their claim, the complaint should still survive” a motion to dismiss.  She also pointed out that in light of the developing marriage equality case law, it would be improper to dismiss the plaintiffs’ sexual orientation discrimination claim either, as many courts have found that the states had presented no rational basis for their bans.

She did, however, find that the plaintiffs’ “right to travel” claim, asserted against the state’s refusal to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages, should be dismissed, because she found it did not fit within the sphere of the constitutional right to travel mapped out in past decisions.  “Although plaintiffs in this case may lose certain benefits when they move to South Dakota,” she wrote, “the fact that they are treated the same as existing residents proves that South Dakota’s marriage laws do not operate as a penalty on the right to travel.  Therefore, plaintiffs have failed to state a claim that is plausible on its face with respect to their right to travel claim.”

The judge ordered the state to respond to plaintiffs’ pending motion for summary judgment by November 24, and plaintiffs would then have up to 14 days to file a reply, after which the court will rule on the pending motion for summary judgment.

Minnesota Attorney Josh Newville represents the plaintiffs, six same-sex couples who either seek to marry in South Dakota or to have their out-of-state marriages recognized.