Saturday, December 8, 2007

Rhode Island Supreme Court Decides Lesbian Couple, Married in Massachusetts, May Not Divorce in Rhode Island

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has just ruled that the Rhode Island courts may not grant a divorce to a lesbian couple married as a same-sex couple in Massachusetts, but now living in Rhode Island (see below). The high court found that its state's Family Court has no jurisdiction to grant the divorce, based on the fact that Rhode Island does not itself recognize this "same-sex marriage" as a "marriage" and the couple would not have been able to marry in Rhode Island. If these two women want a divorce to be issued by a court, they may have to come back to Massachusetts, where our highest court, in 2003, established the right to marriage by same-sex partners in Goodridge et al. v. Department of Public Health et al. (2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Opinion).

For more information, in my previous posts on this case, see Having married in Massachusetts, may a lesbian couple now get divorced in Rhode Island? and Amici Briefs in the Rhode Island Case.

"R.I. high court rules against divorce in same-sex marriages," The Providence Journal, by Edward Fitzpatrick, December 8, 2007:

PROVIDENCE — In a 3 to 2 decision, the state Supreme Court yesterday ruled that two Providence women who married in Massachusetts cannot get divorced in Rhode Island.

The court’s majority concluded that Family Court lacks jurisdiction to grant a divorce to Margaret R. Chambers and Cassandra B. Ormiston because under the law that lets Family Court handle divorces, the word 'marriage' means just one thing: the union of a man and a woman.

"It is possible that today’s members of the General Assembly might have an understanding of the term ‘marriage’ that differs from the understanding of those legislators who enacted [that law] in 1961, but our role is to interpret what was enacted and not to speculate as to what some other not-yet-enacted statute might say or mean," Justice William P. Robinson III wrote for the majority.

"There is absolutely no reason to believe that, when the act creating the Family Court became law in 1961, the legislators understood the word marriage to refer to any state other than ‘the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex,’” Robinson wrote, citing definitions of marriage from 1961 dictionaries.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams and Justice Francis X. Flaherty joined Robinson in the majority while Justices Paul A. Suttell and Maureen McKenna Goldberg dissented.

Suttell said he and Goldberg saw no need to consult 46-year-old dictionaries to answer the legal question before the court. “A brief survey of current dictionaries reveals that the same definition of the word ‘marriage’ predominates today as it did when the Family Court Act was enacted in 1961,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the majority, in our opinion, overlooks the one central and unassailable fact upon which the certified question is predicated,” Suttell wrote. “On May 26, 2004, Ms. Chambers and Ms. Ormiston were lawfully married under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” And Family Court can grant divorces whether or not a marriage is considered legally valid in Rhode Island, he said....

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