Monday, February 14, 2011

Ninth Circuit hears case on Arizona domestic partner benefits...but only for same-sex couples who say they would marry

In 2008, by administrative regulation, Arizona made available to state employees health benefits for their domestic partners, defined by at least a year of living together and a set of criteria demonstrating financial interdependence. Same-sex and different-sex partners were eligible. In August 2009, the Arizona legislature rescinded these benefits through a statute limiting state employee health benefits to spouses. Before the rescission could take effect, Lambda Legal challenged the constitutionality of the legislation, but only on behalf of those state employees with same-sex partners. They won in the District Court, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hears the state's appeal today, in the case of Collins v Brewer.

This case really bothers me. In 2006, an Arizona referendum that would have barred both same-sex marriage and any legal recognition of unmarried partners, gay or straight, failed at the polls. Prop 107, as it was known, is the only ballot measure against same-sex marriage that has ever been defeated. The campaign against it prominently featured different-sex couples who feared losing domestic partner benefits. Two years laters, Arizonans did pass a constitutional amendment simply limiting marriage to one man and one woman. It did not preclude recognition of unmarried couples or of civil union or domestic partner status. The only reason the state employee domestic partner benefits could exist in the first place for anyone is because Prop 107 failed.

Lambda not only carved same-sex couples out from the group of people with domestic partner benefits, they actually say in the briefs, repeatedly, that heterosexual state employees have not lost their benefits. This is inaccurate. Heterosexual employees have lost benefits for their domestic partners (or will when the law goes into effect). They can get benefits if they marry their partners, and Lambda believes this means it is accurate to say in the litigation that the new law deprives only gay and lesbian employees of benefits. I do not believe this is accurate.

The other thing that bothers me is that the gay and lesbian plaintiffs all had to say they would marry their partners if they could. So what happens to those who don't want to marry? Lambda isn't representing those employees either. I wonder how the conversations went between the Lambda lawyers and the gay and lesbian state employees. Did the lawyers say "we can't represent you unless you sign an affidavit that you would marry your partner"? Or did they first talk to all the couples and find out how they felt about marrying? And then tell them that they had already picked out a legal theory that would require the couples to say they would marry? I guess I'm asking if the legal theory came first or if the genuine wishes of all the gay and lesbian employees came first.

It's a grave matter to separate out different-sex domestic partners. I applaud the fact that the most recent civil union/ domestic partner statutes (Nevada, Illinois, and hopefully Hawaii) are open to both same-sex and different-sex couples. And with the unique history of political common cause in Arizona, it seems especially grave. But dividing the gay couples into those who want to marry and those who don't and representing only those who want to marry carves deep into our own community as well.

The press will likely report this case the way Lambda is portraying an attempt to stop a law from going into effect that will deprive only same-sex couples of domestic partner health benefits. That doesn't tell the whole story.


Haley said...

I agree that presenting the case as one that affects only same-sex couples is a misrepresentation of the actual results of the new law. As for making sure the plaintiffs would get married if they could, however, Lambda's seems like a smart strategy. After all, if the state wants to reward and encourage long-term family commitment (using marriage, however imprecisely, as a proxy for commitment) through benefits, and does not want to provide taxpayer dollars to support families it perceives as "less committed," it makes sense that Lambda would separate out the couples that would get married but can't from the couples that could get married but won't. The line between those two sets of people probably tracks close to the "line" between gay and straight couples.

Perhaps Lambda is attempting to get intermediate scrutiny - including straight plaintiff couples that don't want to marry would hurt the chances of getting a higher standard of review, right?

Curious if you think that there is a better way of framing the issue that would have the same legal clout.

Nancy Polikoff said...

I don't think I agree with you in terms of the line. I do not find marriage to be a good enough proxy for long term commitment. Plus the unique thing about this situation is that the same-sex couples would not have had benefits in the first place had different-sex unmarried couples not successfully defended domestic partner benefits at the polls in 2006.