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December 7, 2007
Alert: R.I. Supreme Court says no to same-sex divorce
The state Supreme Court has ruled that a same-sex couple married in Massachusetts may not divorce in Rhode Island because, the court says, the General Assembly has not given the state's Family Court the authority to grant such a divorce.
The court was split, 3-2, on the decision.
In the case, the court was asked by the Rhode Island Family Court whether Margaret R. Chambers and Cassandra B. Ormiston, two women who were married in Massachusetts, could divorce in Rhode Island.
Your turn: Do you agree with the high court's decision?
Read the decision in .pdf format.
Chambers and Ormiston married in Fall River in May 2004, shortly after Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Chambers filed for divorce last year in Rhode Island Family Court, and Ormiston filed a counterclaim, with both citing “irreconcilable differences.”
The case has received national attention because it’s believed to mark the first time any of the same-sex couples married in Massachusetts have sought a divorce in another state. The Rhode Island Supreme Court weighed this question: “May the Family Court properly recognize, for the purpose of entertaining a divorce petition, the marriage of two persons of the same sex who were purportedly married in another state?”
In the majority opinion, authored by Justice William P. Robinson III, the court said that “well-established principles of statutory construction would lead us ineluctably to conclude that the General Assembly has not granted the Family Court the power to grant a divorce in the situation described in the certified question.”
The statute that empowers Family Court to “hear and determine all petitions for divorce from the bond of marriage” was enacted in 1961. But what did its authors mean by “marriage”?
Trying to determine the intended meaning of the word, the justices did what most people would do, they consulted a dictionary – albeit one 45 years old – to figure out what the authors of the law were trying to say.
“With respect to the case at hand, 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,’” the opinion reads, quoting the definition of marriage in the 1961 edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language.
According to a press release, the court wrote, “The role of the judicial branch is not to make policy, but simply to determine the legislative intent as expressed in the statutes enacted by the General Assembly. In our judgment, when the General Assembly accorded the Family Court the power to grant divorces from ‘the bond of marriage,’ it had in mind only marriages between people of different sexes.”
Later in the 30-page opinion, the court wrote, “We are cognizant of the fact that this observation may be cold comfort to the parties before us. But, if there is to be a remedy to this predicament, fashioning such a remedy would fall within the province of the General Assembly.”
The majority consisted of Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, Justice Francis X. Flaherty and Justice Robinson.
Justice Paul A. Suttell and Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg dissented.
In a dissenting opinion, according to the press release, Suttell wrote that the certified question was extremely narrow in scope, and that it sought recognition of a same-sex marriage for the limited purpose of divorce and no other purpose. Suttell wrote that the question did not address the eligibility of same-sex couples to marry under Rhode Island law. The couple were lawfully married in Massachusetts, and had satisfied the applicable domicile and residence requirements for divorce in Rhode Island.
“The subject matter jurisdiction of the Family Court does not turn on the gender of the parties; rather it turns on their status as a married couple,” Justice Suttell wrote.
“We are in complete agreement with the majority on one critical point, however. The legal recognition that ought to be afforded same-sex marriages for any particular purpose is fundamentally a question of public policy, more appropriately determined by the General Assembly after full and robust public debate.”
-- With reports from projo.com staff writer Brandie M. Jefferson and archival reports
Posted by Jack Perry at 1:31 PM | Permalink
Interested Person | December 7, 2007 3:01 PM link
Daninprov | December 7, 2007 5:56 PM link
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Henry Schwarz | December 7, 2007 7:23 PM link
Cindy | December 7, 2007 7:36 PM link
Tim | December 7, 2007 7:39 PM link
The Senescent Man | December 7, 2007 7:59 PM link
Chairm | December 8, 2007 12:31 AM link
Good Decision | December 8, 2007 5:08 AM link
Mike | December 8, 2007 7:41 AM link
Leaving RI | December 8, 2007 7:55 AM link
Chairm | December 8, 2007 10:06 PM link
John | December 10, 2007 9:18 PM link
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