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Posts Tagged ‘marriage equality in Puerto Rico’

New Judge Rules for Plaintiffs in Puerto Rico Marriage Equality Case

Posted on: April 8th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

On April 7, U.S. District Judge Gustavo A. Gelpi issued an order declaring the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in the case of Conde-Vidal v. Padilla.  This was a bit of an anti-climax, since the state government had been complying with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling since last summer while awaiting some action in the lawsuit pending in federal court, but the pathway to the April 7 Order was not easy.

Lambda Legal represented a group of Puerto Rico residents who filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the statutory ban, Article 68 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, title 31, section 221, after the Supreme Court had declared DOMA unconstitutional.   At a time when federal trial judges around the country seemed to be competing with each other to see how fast they could strike down state bans on same-sex marriage, District Judge Juan M. Perez-Gimenez was determined to be an outlier.  On October 21, 2014, he granted the Commonwealth’s motion to dismiss the case, relying on the Supreme Court’s decades-old Baker v. Nelson ruling and the lack of any marriage equality ruling by the federal courts in the First Circuit.  (The First Circuit comprises most of the New England states, where marriage equality was achieved through state court litigation, referenda and state legislative action, without any assistance from the federal courts.)

This dismissal seemed particularly odd because it came just a few weeks after the Supreme Court refused to review the pro-marriage equality rulings by federal appeals courts in the 4th, 7th and 10th Circuits, and those circuit courts had all ruled that Baker v. Nelson was no longer a controlling precedent.

Lambda filed an appeal to the 1st Circuit, which then put the appeal on hold when the Supreme Court announced early in 2015 that it would review an anti-marriage equality decision that had been issued by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015 that state bans on same-sex marriage violate the 14th Amendment, Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Padilla, the lead defendant in Lambda’s case, issued an order that the state government comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the Commonwealth agreed to file a joint motion with Lambda in the 1st Circuit, informing that court that all parties to the case agreed that the Puerto Rico ban was unconstitutional.  The 1st Circuit agreed as well, vacated Judge Perez-Gimenez’s decision on July 8, 2015, and sent the case back to him “for further consideration in light of Obergefell.”  At that time, the 1st Circuit stated, “We agree with the parties’ joint position that the ban is unconstitutional.  Mandate to issue forthwith.”

But Judge Perez-Gimenez did not take action “forthwith.”  Instead, he pondered for eight months, and then issued a peculiar decision on March 8, 2016, stating that the Supreme Court’s decision did not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico because of its commonwealth status.  This was nonsense, because a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1976 had ruled that the residents of Puerto Rico are entitled to the rights protected under the 14th Amendment, which was the provision underlying the marriage equality ruling.

Once again Lambda Legal petitioned the 1st Circuit, which responded on April 7: “The district court’s ruling errs in so many respects,” said the court, “that it is hard to know where to begin.” After pointing out the 1976 Supreme Court ruling, the court observed that its own mandate from July 8 was clear, and the federal district court was obligated to follow it.

The appeals court ordered that the clerk of the district court randomly assign the case to a different judge “to enter judgment in favor of the Petitioners promptly, and to conduct any further proceedings necessary in this action.”

Acting with alacrity, the clerk reassigned the case immediately to Judge Gelpi, who quickly issued his Order the same afternoon. As part of the Order, Gelpi scheduled a conference of the lawyers in the case in his chambers on April 11, by which time he hoped they would have drafted a joint stipulation for him to endorse as the final judgment in the case.  Once that is done, presumably, the plaintiffs can file a motion for attorney fees and costs as the prevailing parties.

Federal Judge in Puerto Rico Claims Obergefell v. Hodges Does Not Apply There

Posted on: March 9th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

In an astonishing departure from established precedents, U.S. District Judge Juan M. Perez-Gimenez of the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, who had dismissed a marriage equality lawsuit on October 21, 2014, has issued a new decision on March 8, 2016, Vidal v. Garcia-Padilla, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29651, asserting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26, 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry in the United States, does not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico.

Lambda Legal represents the plaintiffs in that marriage equality case.  Lambda appealed the court’s 2014 ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal cases arising in Puerto Rico.  That court held up ruling on the appeal until after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell.  On July 8, 2015, the 1st Circuit vacated Judge Perez-Gimenez’s decision and sent the case back to the district court “for further consideration in light of Obergefell v. Hodges.”  In its brief order, the 1st Circuit also stated that it “agrees with the parties’ joint position that the ban [on same-sex marriage] is unconstitutional.”  A week later, the parties filed a “Joint Motion for Entry of Judgment” with the district court, asking for a declaration that Puerto Rico’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and an injunction ordering the commonwealth government not to enforce the ban.

In a  footnote to his opinion, Judge Perez-Gimenez observed that Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla had signed an Executive Order “just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell” directing Puerto Rico government officials to comply with that ruling, an action that provoked some members of the Puerto Rico legislature to file a lawsuit in the local courts challenging his action.  That case has apparently gone nowhere, and the government of Puerto Rico has been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognizing their marriages performed elsewhere.

Perez-Gimenez explained that in Obergefell the Supreme Court invoked the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses to hold that the same-sex marriage bans in the four states within the jurisdiction of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) were unconstitutional because they deprived same-sex couples of a fundamental right to marry, thus abridging their liberty and denying equal protection of the laws.  He also noted that some lower federal courts have acknowledged that Obergefell v. Hodges was technically ruling on the state constitutions and laws of those four states, and thus had not automatically mooted cases pending in the 5th, 8th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals involving same-sex marriage bans in other states, although those courts quickly issued rulings applying Obergefell as a precedent to the marriage equality cases arising from states under their jurisdiction.

More significantly, Judge Perez-Gimenez claimed that because Puerto Rico is neither a “state” nor an “incorporated territory,” but rather an “unincorporated territory” with extensive self-government rights under a federal statute making it a “commonwealth,” there is some question whether the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell is a binding precedent in Puerto Rico.  He pointed out, that the 14th Amendment provides expressly that “no state” may deprive a person of due process or equal protection, and that because Puerto Rico is not a state, the 14th Amendment’s applicability is not clear.  He cited a variety of older Supreme Court decisions making the general point that all provisions of the U.S. Constitution do not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico in all circumstances.

What he neglected to cite, however, was a case pointed out by Joshua Block, an ACLU attorney who spoke with Chris Geidner of BuzzFeed.com shortly after Perez-Gimenez issue his ruling: a 1976 Supreme Court decision, Examining Board of Engineers v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572 (1976), in which the Court stated, in an opinion by Justice Harry Blackmun, “The Court’s decisions respecting the rights of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico have been neither unambiguous nor exactly uniform.  The nature of this country’s relationship to Puerto Rico was vigorously debated within the Court as well as within the Congress.  It is clear now, however, that the protections accorded either by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment or the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to residents of Puerto Rico.”

In that case, the Court was considering the constitutionality of a local Puerto Rican statute imposing a citizenship requirement before somebody could be licensed to practice as a civil engineer.  The Court held that the requirement violated equal protection, based on its precedents interpreting both the 5th and 14th Amendments, under which the Court imposes “strict scrutiny” on federal or state laws that discriminate based on alienage.  That is, the government must have a compelling justification before it can deny a right or benefit to somebody because they are not a U.S. citizen.  In a prior case, Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663 (1974), the Court had specifically held that the due process requirements of the 5th and 14th Amendment also applied to Puerto Rico, limiting the right of the government to restrict the rights of property-owners.

Thus, Judge Perez-Gimenez’s insistence that the Supreme Court’s holding concerning the rights of same-sex couples under the 14th Amendment does not apply to persons present in Puerto Rico appears contrary to a Supreme Court precedent.

Nonetheless, Perez-Gimenez, without acknowledging these Supreme Court decisions, held that “the right to same-sex marriage in Puerto Rico requires: (a) further judicial expression by the U.S. Supreme Court; or (b) the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico; (c) incorporation through legislation enacted by Congress, in the exercise of the powers conferred by the Territorial Clause; or (d) by virtue of any act or statute adopted by the Puerto Rico Legislature that amends or repeals Article 68 [the local law banning same-sex marriage].”

Had there been any doubt that the Obergefell ruling applies to Puerto Rico, the 1st Circuit would have expressed that doubt as part of its consideration of the appeal from Perez-Gimenez’s prior ruling in the case.  Instead, that court expressly stated its agreement with the joint position stated by the parties in that case that the Puerto Rico ban was unconstitutional.  Lambda Legal will promptly appeal this ruling to the 1st Circuit.  In the meantime, presumably the governor’s executive order remains in effect.