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Michigan may be the next state to defend its ban on same-sex marriage in a federal court trial.

Posted on: July 2nd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Senior U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman, appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, ruled on July 1 that a Michigan lesbian couple is entitled to a trial of their claim that the state adoption law, forbidding same-sex couples to jointly adopt children, and the Michigan Marriage Amendment (MMA), forbidding same-sex marriages, violate their rights under the 14th Amendment.  Rejecting the state’s motion to dismiss the case, Judge Friedman cited the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. v. Windsor, to support the “plausibility” of the couple’s constitutional claim.

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, the plaintiffs, are both employed as nurses and have lived together for six years.  Between them, they have adopted three children as single parents.  They would like to jointly adopt the three children to solidify their family relationship, but Michigan’s adoption law forbids it because they are not married, and the Michigan Marriage Amendment denies them the right to marry.

They filed suit in federal court, claiming that the state’s prohibition on joint adoptions by same-sex couples violates their equal protection rights.  In pre-trial arguments, Judge Friedman suggested that their challenge would not be complete if it was confined to the adoption law, and they amended their complaint at his suggestion to add a claim that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates their rights as well. 

The state moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiffs cannot show that the Michigan Marriage Amendment lacks a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest, and that there is no fundamental right under the constitution for same-sex couples to marry.

Friedman denied the motion, holding that the claims cannot be decided as a matter of law at this point, largely because of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision.

On the one hand, he observed, there is language in that decision that defendants will cite, about the state’s “historic and essential authority to define the marital relation” (quoting from Justice Kennedy’s opinion).  “They will couch the popular referendum that resulted in the passage of the MMA as ‘a proper exercise of [the state’s] sovereign authority within our federal system, all in the way that the Framers of the Constitution intended,” he wrote, again quoting from Kennedy’s opinion.

On the other hand, of course, he asserted that “plaintiffs are prepared to claim Windsor as their own; their briefs sure to be replete with references to the newly enthroned triumvirate of Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, and now Windsor.  And why shouldn’t they?  The Supreme Court has just invalidated a federal statute on equal protection grounds because it ‘place[d] same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.’  Moreover, and of particular importance to this case, the justices expressed concern that the natural consequence of such discriminatory legislation would not only lead to the relegation of same-sex relationships to a form of second-tier status, but impair the rights of ‘tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples’ as well.  This is exactly the type of harm plaintiffs seek to remedy in this case.”

The court’s role in deciding a motion to dismiss is to decide whether the plaintiffs have asserted a plausible legal claim, assuming their factual allegations to be true.  “Construing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, and in view of the Supreme Court’s current statement of the law, this Court cannot say that plaintiffs’ claims for relief are without plausibility,” Friedman concluded as to the equal protection claim.  He commented that the plaintiffs’ due process claim “will likewise move forward because it states a plausible claim for relief,” citing Judge Vaughn Walker’s original Proposition 8 decision, which now stands as an unappealed district court opinion.

Friedman ordered that counsel meet with him on July 10 to set a trial date.  From the tone of his opinion, he is eager to decide this case on the merits, and seems well disposed towards the plaintiffs’ claims.

First Fruits of the DOMA/Prop 8 Decisions – Quick Response from the Obama Administration, Resumption of Marriages in California, and a Decision Striking a Michigan Law Against Partner Benefits

Posted on: June 30th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Response by the “defendants” in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases to the Supreme Court’s June 26 rulings was swift.

Within hours after the Court announced that Section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, the President had announced his “applause” for the decision and instruction to the Attorney General to coordinate with executive branch department heads to seek “smooth” implementation for federal recognition of lawfully-contracted same-sex marriages.  Some of the quickest responses came rolling in right away: Defense Secretary Hagel said steps would immediately be taken to extend spousal benefits to for same-sex spouses of military personnel, and Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano said that Customs & Immigration would immediately accord equal recognition to same-sex marriages.  The first green card was issued for a same-sex spouse just two days later, on Friday, for a Florida couple that included a Bulgarian citizen, and even more quickly, an immigration judge in New York halted a deportation hearing on Wednesday morning after being handed a copy of the DOMA decision fresh off the presses.  President Obama called Edie Windsor to congratulate her on the victory, but he did not, as far as we know, say “The check is in the mail,” which would have been a nice touch.  The IRS bureaucracy does not grind that quickly.  Indeed, the IRS may end up being one of the main sticking points for implementation, having emitted a non-committal statement that it would be providing guidance for taxpayers, employers and corporations, but not indicating when that would be forthcoming.  Office of Personnel Management sent out a notice to executive branch heads that same-sex spouses should immediately be recognized, and that an open enrollment period would commence for federal employees to enroll their same-sex spouses in benefits programs.   Nobody in the executive branch seemed inclined to wait until the Court issues its official mandate later in July before taking action, but that’s not surprising, given the government’s posture on the merits of the case!

Also within hours of the Prop 8 decision being announced, Governor Jerry Brown of California issued a statement attaching an opinion letter he had solicited weeks ago from Attorney General Kamala Harris about the scope of Judge Vaughn Walker’s Order.  Harris advised that when the stay was lifted by the 9th Circuit, same-sex marriage should be immediately available in every county.  In other words, she was rejecting the contention by the initiative proponents that the Order was limited to the plaintiff couples or the two counties where clerks were named defendants in the case. Brown followed her advice and had the Department of Public Health send a notice to all County Clerks and Recorders that upon lifting of the stay, same-sex couples should be treated the same as different-sex couples.  Harris contacted the 9th Circuit and urged that the stay be lifted right away.  The 9th Circuit panel that had issued the now-vacated decision expeditously responded on Friday, June 28, lifting the stay, opening the way for the plaintiff couples to get married that afternoon.   The San Francisco County Clerk’s office decided to stay open over the weekend to accommodate the demand for marriage licenses and ceremonies during Gay Pride Week, which was expected to draw 1.5 million to San Francisco for the annual festivities.

The Proponents tried to throw a wrench into the works, filing an “emergency motion” with the Supreme Court to halt the marriages, contending that the 9th Circuit could not lift the stay until the Supreme Court’s formal mandate arrived later in July.  Justice Kennedy, to whom the motion was referred, quickly denied it without comment.  Proponents are still expected to try other legal strategems in the days ahead.

Meanwhile, the first court to cite and rely on the Windsor case issued its ruling on Friday, June 28.  District Judge David M. Lawson, relying in part on the reasoning of Windsor as well as the Arizona domestic partnership benefits case, ruling in Bassett v. Snyder, 2013 WL 3285111 (E.D.Mich.), that plaintiffs were entitled to a preliminary injunction against the operation of a Michigan law that had been adopted to block public employers from providing domestic partnership benefits to their employees.  Under Public Law 297, employee benefits may be extended only to legal spouses, legal dependents, or legal heirs (those who could inherit from an employee under the intestacy laws) who are living with the employee.  The legislative history shows that this was passed specifically to override local governments that had extended benefits to non-marital partners.  Michigan’s Supreme Court had construed the state’s marriage amendment to forbid extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners as such, but many localities and government institutions had contrived a work-around to extend benefits to cohabitants who met certain minimal requirements, regardless of sex, and the law was intended to end this loophole as a means of enforcing the the marriage amendment.  The court found this to be a transparently discriminatory measure aimed mainly at same-sex couples — agreeing with the Arizona district court and the 9th Circuit (but failing to note the new development that the Supreme Court denied Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s cert petition on June 27) — and finding, in light of the reasoning of Windsor, that this would be an equal protection violation. 

Things are happening so fast, it’s difficult to keep up.  Lambda Legal announced it was filing a summary judgment motion in its pending N.J. Superior Court lawsuit seeking a ruling that the civil union act fails to provide equal rights for civil union partners, and the DOMA decision gives added weight to that contention.  A state legislator who represents the plaintiffs in a New Mexico marriage equality lawsuit announced he would petition the state supreme court to take up the case directly, in light of Windor, and of course the 9th Circuit will soon hear arguments in the Hawaii and Nevada cases.  (The Supreme Court denied a petition by the defenders of the Nevada marriage amendment, who were trying to leapfrog the 9th Circuit, also on June 27.)  Racing to keep up….