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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.