Although the U.S. Supreme Court issued a sweeping ruling for marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015, pockets of resistance remain in the states. The latest manifestation of this phenomenon comes from Arkansas, where the state’s Supreme Court ruled on December 8 by a 4-3 vote that same-sex couples do not enjoy the same constitutional rights as opposite sex couples when it comes to listing parents on birth certificates. In Smith v. Pavan, 2016 Ark. 437, the majority of the court rejected a constitutional challenge to two Arkansas statutes under which wives of birth mothers are denied equal treatment with husbands of birth mothers in the matter of being listed as parents on birth certificates. Three members of the court disagreed with the majority to varying extents in separate opinions.
The case was brought by three lesbian couples. Two of the couples, Marisa and Terrah Pavan and Leigh and Jana Jacobs, were married out-of-state and then had a child born in their residential state of Arkansas. The third couple, Courtney Kassel and Kelly Scott, had a child in Arkansas and married shortly thereafter. In all three cases, the Department of Health, headed by named-defendant Dr. Nathaniel Smith, refused to list the spouse of the birth mother on the birth certificate, relying on gender-specific Arkansas statutes that provide for listing husbands but not wives of birth mothers.
The women, represented by attorney Cheryl Maples with amicus assistance from the ACLU of Arkansas and the national ACLU LGBT Rights Project, filed suit against Smith. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Timothy Davis Fox accepted their argument that Dr. Smith, who was also a named defendant in Wright v. Smith, the Arkansas state court marriage equality case, was bound by the decision in that earlier case, which had struck down as unconstitutional not only the state’s ban on same-sex marriage but also “all other state and local laws and regulations identified in Plaintiff’s complaint or otherwise in existence to the extent they do not recognize same-sex marriages validly contracted outside Arkansas, prohibit otherwise qualified same-sex couples from marrying in Arkansas or deny same-sex married couples the rights, recognition and benefits associated with marriage in the State of Arkansas.”
The case appeared clear to Judge Fox. The final court order issued in Wright v. Smith required that Arkansas treat same-sex marriages as equal to different-sex marriages in all respects under state law, and Smith was precluded from trying to re-litigate that issue in this case. Smith’s appeal from the trial court’s ruling in Wright v. Smith was pending when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling in Obergefell, after which the Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed that appeal as moot, ending a stay that it had granted on the trial court’s Order.
Furthermore, Judge Fox found support for his decision in favor of the women in the Obergefell opinion itself, noting that Justice Anthony Kennedy had mentioned “certificates of birth and death” as one of the benefits of same-sex marriage. Kennedy had written:
“The challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and they abridge central precepts of equality. The marriage laws at issue are in essence unequal: Same-sex couples are denied benefits afforded opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right. . . . The State laws challenged by the petitioners in these cases are held invalid to the extent they exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.”
To Judge Fox, this meant that married same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights of marriage as different sex couples, including the same spousal rights regarding birth certificates.
But a majority of the Arkansas Supreme Court insisted that the Obergefell decision, and the state court Wright decision, had not decided this issue. An opinion by Justice Josephine Linker Hart for four members of the seven-member court insisted that the only questions decided by these prior cases were whether same-sex couples could marry or have their out-of-state marriages recognized. Viewed this way, the Wright v. Smith decision would not preclude Smith from applying Arkansas statutes to refuse to list the same-sex spouses on birth certificates unless the court were to decide independently that doing so violated the constitutional rights of the spouses. This the court was unwilling to do.
Since Judge Fox had ordered Smith to issue new birth certificates listing both mothers, and that order had not been stayed, the Supreme Court decided that the case should be treated as a facial challenge to the constitutionality of the statutes. Because the plaintiffs had actually received the birth certificates they sought, any “as applied” challenge was deemed to be moot.
One of the challenged statutes provides that when a child is born to a married woman, her husband will be listed on the birth certificate as the child’s father unless a court has determined either that another man is the child’s biological father, or the mother, the biological father, and her husband have executed affidavits establishing that the husband is not the biological father. The other challenged statute provides that when a child is born to an unmarried woman, only she will be listed on the original birth certificate, but a new birth certificate can be issued listing the biological father if the child is “legitimated” by the biological parents subsequently marrying, or a court determines who is the biological fathers.
The court insisted that both statutes are clearly intended to record historical facts about the biological parents of a child, and that the state has a legitimate reason to want the original birth certificate to correctly list these historical facts. “In our analysis of the statutes presented above,” wrote Justice Hart, “it is the nexus of the biological mother and the biological father of the child that is to be truthfully recorded on the child’s birth certificate.
Quoting from an affidavit submitted by Melinda Allen, the state’s Vital Records Registrar, the court adopted her contention that the recordation of biological parents was “critical” to the department’s “identification of public health trends,” and she asserted that “it can be critical to an individual’s identification of personal health issues and genetic conditions.” She noted that in adoption and surrogacy situations, the biological parents are listed on original birth certificates, which are then “sealed” when new certificates are issued showing adoptive or intended parents, since the state deems it essential that a permanent record of biological parentage be preserved.
Justice Hart said that Judge Fox had “conflated distinct categories of marriage, parental rights, and vital records,” and that the issue in this case was not who can be a parent but rather who must be listed on a birth certificate. “On the record presented,” she wrote, “we cannot say that naming the nonbiological spouse on the birth certificate of the child is an interest of the person so fundamental that the State must accord the interest its respect under either statute.”
As to an equal protection challenge, the court found that the same-sex spouse is not similarly situated to the husband, and “it does not violate equal protection to acknowledge basic biological truths”. In this case, the majority found, “the challenged classification serves important governmental objectives” – the factual record of biological parentage for the reasons asserted by Melinda Allen in her affidavit.
The court pointed out that there was another statute that might be invoked in this situation, governing intended fathers in cases involving “artificial insemination.” In such cases, if the mother’s husband consented in writing to her insemination with donated sperm, the child would be “deemed the legitimate natural child of the woman and the woman’s husband” and he would be listed on the birth certificate.
At oral argument in this case, counsel for Dr. Smith conceded that this statute violated equal protection, since in this case both the husband and the same-sex spouse of the birth mother were not biologically related to the child, and thus similarly situated. Smith’s attorney argued that if a case was brought under that statute, the court “could resolve many of the concerns raised by the [women] by amending the wording of the statute,” but Justice Hart rejected this suggestion, insisting that “this court is not a legislative body and it cannot change the wording of the statute.” Furthermore, since the plaintiffs did not invoke the artificial insemination statute in this case – possibly because they did not have written authorization for the insemination procedure as required by the statute – the trial court did not rule on the statute’s constitutionality, so the issue of its constitutionality was not properly before the court.
In a concluding paragraph, the court “admonished” Judge Fox for having made a public statement that if the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay of his order in this case, it would be depriving people of their constitutional rights, and that the court had deprived people of their constitutional rights in a separate matter. “A remark made to gain the attention of the press and to create public clamor undermines ‘public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality,’ not only of this court, but also of the entire judiciary,” wrote Hart, and Fox was formally “admonished” for “his inappropriate comments made while performing the duties of his judicial office.”
Chief Justice Howard Brill, in a separate opinion, agreed with the majority that Obergefell was a narrow holding that same-sex couples have a right to marry, and thus did not directly settle the question of birth certificates. However, he wrote, “The question here is the broader impact of that ruling as it affects birth certificates,” and, he wrote, “The logical extension of Obergefell, mandated by the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, is that a same-sex married couple is entitled to a birth certificate on the same basis as an opposite-sex married couple,” because “the right to a birth certificate is a corollary to the right to a marriage license.” He prefaced his opinion with a quote from the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and concluded by arguing that it was up to the legislature to amend the existing laws to come into compliance with Obergefell. “The times they are a-changin’,” he wrote. “All three branches of the government must change accordingly. It is time to heed the call.”
In her separate opinion, Justice Rhonda K. Wood joined the court in reversing the case on the ground of “prudential-mootness” because the plaintiff couples had received their revised birth certificates on the order of Judge Fox. At the same time, she wrote, “I encourage the legislature to address the relevant birth certificate statutes in the upcoming session to avoid a plethora of litigation and confusion for the courts.” She pointed out that this litigation had actually stimulated the Health Department to modify its procedures, noting that Allen’s affidavit stated that the department “will issue birth certificates listing both same-sex parents if the hospital submits documentation reflecting that fact,” although the parties disputed at oral argument about how consistently this new policy was being implemented. She also noted Smith’s concession at the oral argument that the artificial insemination statute, as written, violated equal protection, and that if the department administers it appropriately, “any legal challenge in this regard would be moot.” Judge Wood emphasized the fluidity of the situation on the ground and the likelihood that things had changed since Allen made her affidavit. This, to her, would justify the court as treating the appeal as moot and sending the case back to the circuit court for a new hearing to determine the current facts, which might make it unnecessary to issue a constitutional ruling. However, departing from the majority, she wrote that in her view, “states cannot constitutionally deny same-sex couples the benefits to marital status, which include equal access to birth certificates,” and suggested that the legislature should amend the statute to comply with this conclusion.
Justice Paul Danielson dissented totally from the majority opinion, stating that he would affirm Judge Fox’s ruling, agreeing that Smith and Obergefell settled the matter and the statutes as written were clearly unconstitutional.
Justices Wood and Danielson dissented from the majority’s admonishment of Judge Fox. Justice Wood merely stated that she had not “participated” in the majority’s decision to admonish the judge. Justice Danielson wrote at length, arguing that the admonishment violated Judge Fox’s constitutional free speech rights, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court decision stating that “the operations of the courts and the judicial conduct of judges [are] matters of the utmost public concern.” The Supreme Court “has cautioned against repressing speech under the guise of promoting public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary,” wrote Danielson. “In short,” he concluded, “the fact that members of this court have personally taken offense to the circuit judge’s remarks is not a sufficient basis for suggesting that those remarks violate our disciplinary rules.”