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Key West (Florida) Trial Judge Rules for Marriage Equality

Posted on: July 17th, 2014 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

A state trial judge in Key West, Florida, has ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Judge Luis M. Garcia ruled on July 17 that Monroe County Clerk Amy Heavilin must issue a marriage license to Aaron R. Huntsman and William Lee Jones, who have been a couple for eleven years, on July 22. Garcia wrote that he was giving the clerk until July 22 “in consideration of the Clerk of Court’s anticipated rise in activity, and preparation thereof.”

Attorney General Pamela Jo Bondi, evidently anticipating the ruling, immediately filed a notice that she was appealing the ruling to the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal. Although the lawsuit was originally filed against Heavilin, the state intervened as a defendant and will be handling the appeal.

The plaintiffs and the defendants agreed that there were no factual issues that required a trial, authorizing the court to issue a ruling on the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment. The court had allowed two organizations to file legal memorandums defending Florida’s constitutional and statutory same-sex marriage ban, and they had argued that a trial was needed, but Judge Garcia ruled that only the defendants had standing to make that argument.

The state’s first argument was that the plaintiffs’ constitutional claim was blocked by the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Baker v. Nelson, a Minnesota marriage equality case, in which the Court dismissed the appeal, stating that it did not present a “substantial federal question.” Garcia pointed out that after Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas and United States v. Windsor, he concluded that Baker “is no longer binding and the issue of same-sex marriage has now become a Federal question.” He cited the 10th Circuit’s recent ruling in the Utah marriage case, as well as trial court rulings from Pennsylvania, Oregon, Oklahoma, Michigan and Virginia in support of this conclusion.

Moving to the plaintiffs’ Due Process argument, he found that Supreme Court rulings treat the right to marry as an individual right, and, refuting the state’s argument that plaintiffs were seeking the establishment of a “new” constitutional right, wrote, “The right these plaintiffs seek is not a new right, but is a right that these individuals have always been guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Societal norms and traditions have kept same-sex couples from marrying, like it kept women from voting until 1920 and forbid interracial marriage until 1967.”
Garcia concluded that the fundamental right to marry “encompasses the right to marry a person of one’s own sex,” and thus the Florida marriage amendment and statute are unconstitutional.

Turning to the plaintiffs’ Equal Protection argument, Judge Garcia noted that in U.S. v. Windsor the Supreme Court had ruled that unconstitutional animus was behind the Defense of Marriage Act, and found that the same analysis would lead to the same result regarding Florida’s marriage ban. In Windsor, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “the purpose and effect of the law was to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into a same sex marriage.” “Similarly,” wrote Judge Garcia, “the purpose and practical effect of [the Florida Marriage Protection Act] is that it creates a separate status for same-sex couples and imposes a disadvantage and stigma by not being recognized under Florida law.”

He also rejected the argument that there is “no evidence of animus towards homosexuals by the proponents of the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment,” finding that “there is ample evidence not only historically but within the very memorandum of law filed by the Amici Curiae.” Here the opponents of same-sex marriage hurt their own case by their outrageous assertions. “The Amici Curiae’s memorandum paints a picture of homosexuals as HIV infected, alcohol and drug abusers, who are promiscuous and psychologically damaged and incapable of long-term relationships or of raising children,” and thus it was rational, they argued, for Florida’s voters to “minimize the deleterious effect of these conditions on public health, safety and welfare by affirming that marriage in Florida remains the union of one man and one woman.” Garcia concluded that “animus has been established.”

He also concluded that the Equal Protection claim should be decided using a “heightened rational basis test,” and that the marriage ban could not survive such a test. Indeed, he wrote, “Only the Amici Curiae has attempted to put forward a rational basis for the unequal treatment of a segment of our society,” and he found their arguments unavailing. Their first basis was to argue that the law “memorialized millennia of history and tradition,” but, as Justice Scalia had pointed out in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, “Preserving the traditional institution of marriage is just a kinder way of describing the State’s moral disapproval of same-sex couples.” The other argument was the ban somehow “encourages procreation” among heterosexuals, but Garcia found that there was nothing in the marriage ban “that encourages heterosexual couples to procreate.” The third argument was that the law “encourages a better environment for the rearing of children,” but, Garcia pointed out, quoting from an Ohio marriage recognition ruling from last year, “The only effect the marriage recognition bans have on children’s well-being is harming the children of same-sex couples who are denied the protection and stability of having parents who are legally married.”

Unfortunately, however, the only plaintiffs in this case are two men who wish to be married, and Garcia found that they did not have standing to challenge the Florida statute that bans recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages, so he limited his ruling to the right to marry. Of course there are several other marriage equality cases pending in Florida courts, both state and federal, and plenty of them have married couples seeking recognition, so that point will eventually be covered in another case.

“The court is aware that the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage,” concluded Judge Garcia, “but it is our country’s proud history to protect the rights of the individual, the rights of the unpopular and the rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority. . . All laws passed whether by the legislature or by popular support must pass the scrutiny of the United States Constitution. To do otherwise diminishes the Constitution to just a historical piece of paper.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Florida attorneys Elena Vigil-Farinas, Bernadette Restivo and Thomas L. Hampton.