Wednesday, April 11, 2012

So Nevada Gets a Marriage Equality Law Suit... What's Next?

Last night, the lead plaintiffs in the case that's destined to shake up Nevada's marriage law went to Ralston to make their case.

(Start at 9:00.)



Yet while we see a new round of media buzz on this issue, let's not forget that there's an actual case to be tried in court. As we touched on yesterday, how the federal courts taking up this case interpret the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment will be key. And while there are similarities to the Prop 8 case in California, there's one key difference that Prop 8 Trial Tracker noted yesterday.

Lamdba Legal’s suit is no doubt in part inspired by the success of the American Foundation for Equal Rights in the Prop 8 case, Perry v. Brown, which led to historic rulings in favor of marriage equality in California both at the district and appellate court levels. Nevada, like California, falls under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, so lawyers in the Sevcik case could cite the Prop 8 ruling in the Ninth Circuit as precedent. Additionally, any appeal of the eventual Sevcik ruling would end up at the Ninth Circuit just like Perry did.

Despite these similarities, the legal arguments that Lamdba Legal are pursuing in Sevcik are not quite the same as AFER’s arguments in Perry. The central complaint in the new Nevada case is an equal protection claim that domestic parternships violate the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples. In the Prop 8 case, AFER made the same equal protection claim but also argued for a fundamental right to marriage under the U.S. Constitution. Tara Borelli, a staff attorney with Lamdba, explained to MetroWeekly that the group “certainly believe[s] that the fundamental right to marry includes same-sex couples, but this court doesn’t need to answer that question to rule for the plaintiffs here. We’re convinced that our equal protection claim is so clearly correct that we want to keep the focus on that claim.”

Lambda Legal’s strategy makes the Sevcik case a more conservative one than the Prop 8 case in Perry, and would appear to be a response at least in part to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in the Prop 8 case, which declined to address the fundamental right question and instead focused more specifically on the circumstances unique to California’s situation.

In explaining Lambda’s complaint, Borelli said, “One of the reasons that we’re suing in the state of Nevada is that this is a particular equal protection problem that this case examines. It’s the kind of problem created where a state excludes same-sex couples from marriage deems them fit for all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage through a lesser, second-class status — in this case, domestic partnership. That shows just how irrational that state’s decision is to shut same-sex couples out of marriage.”

So the Sevcik case here in Nevada will come down to whether domestic partnership actually provides "equal protection under the law", and if we can ever have true equal protection as long as the Question 2 marriage ban remains on the books. Unlike AFER's argument for a broad, nationwide fundamental right to marry that's being made in the Perry case in California, Lambda Legal is making a narrower argument based on the inequality present in Nevada family law and how that can not make federal Constitutional muster. It looks like Lambda Legal is confident that even if some federal judges are hesitant to use one stroke to knock down all the state marriage bans at once, they have to closely examine situations like ours and realize that we're experiencing clear and illegal discrimination.

So where will we go from here? For now, this will be in courtroom of Senior Judge Roger Hunt. And regardless of how Hunt decides, this will likely head next to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Interestingly enough, The Ninth is the same court that issued a narrow ruling in the Perry case back in February, a narrow ruling centered on the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. And funny enough, the Sevcik case will be argued on the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Coincidence?

And like the California case, don't expect any immediate resolution. This may very well end up on the Supreme Court docket, but perhaps not for another 3-5 years. So buckle up and get ready for a long and bumpy and fascinating and trailblazing ride.

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