Washington's State Supreme Court upheld a ban on gay marriage Wednesday, July 26, 2006, saying lawmakers have the power to restrict marriage to unions between a man and woman.
The court split 5-4 in a decision that disappointed gay-marriage advocates and left Massachusetts as the only state that grants full marriage rights to gay couples. The court's decision favoring gay-marriage opponents was one of several recent significant court rulings dealing a blow to same-sex marriage proponents. Earlier this month, as reported on this blog, New York's high court ruled that a state law limiting marriage to between a man and a woman was constitutional in that state.
The Washington Supreme Court overruled two lower courts that had found the state's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act, which limits marriage to opposite-sex couples, violated the state constitution and its Equal Rights Amendment.
Interestingly, three of the justices in the majority invited the state Legislature to take another look at the gay marriage ban's effect on same-sex couples, saying: "Given the clear hardship faced by same-sex couples evidenced in this lawsuit, the Legislature may want to re-examine the impact of the marriage laws on all citizens of this state."
It is also of interest that the state of Washington has long upheld the rights of unmarried cohabitants to an equitable share of property acquired during a cohabitation relationship and that its courts have applied those principles to same-sex relationships.
An early case dealing with the rights of cohabitants was Chesterfield v. Nash, 96 Wash.App. 103, 978 P.2d 551 (1999). See also Connell v. Francisco, 127 Wn.2d 339, 346, 898 P.2d 831 (1995) (citing In re Marriage of Lindsey, 101 Wn.2d 299, 304-05, 678 P.2d 328 (1984) [Relevant factors establishing a meretricious relationship include, but are not limited to: continuous cohabitation, duration of the relationship, purpose of the relationship, pooling of resources and services for joint projects, and the intent of the parties.]
Washington's "meretricious relationship" doctrine applies a standard of equitable distribution to couples who are in stable, marital-like relationships, cohabiting with knowledge that a lawful marriage between them does not exist. Under this doctrine, at separation, and presumably at death, the parties to such relationships are entitled to a just and equitable distribution of property acquired during the relationship that would be community property if the parties had been married.
The meretricious relationship doctrine has been applied by a Washington State appellate court in a same-sex cohabitation case. See Gormley v Robertson, 120 Wash.App. 31, 83 P.3d 1042 (2004) in which a Washington appellate court affirmed a trial court's application of the doctrine and distribution of the property acquired during the relationship between the two women. See also Vasquez v. Hawthorne, 99 Wn. App. 363, 367-68, 994 P.2d 240 (2000), reversed and vacated by, 145 Wn.2d 103, 33 P.3d 735 (2001).
In Vasquez, the Washington Supreme Court stated that "courts have long recognized that when equitable claims are brought, the focus should remain on the equities involved between the parties. Equitable claims are not dependent on the 'legality' of the relationship between the parties, nor are they limited by the gender or sexual orientation of the parties. For example, the use of the term 'marital-like' in prior meretricious relationship cases is a mere analogy because defining these relationships as related to marriage would create a de facto common-law marriage, which this court has refused to do." [citing to In re Marriage of Pennington, 142 Wn.2d 592, 601, 14 P.3d 764 (2000).]
Although Washington court decisions have long decried the use of the term "meretricious relationship," it continues to be a term of art in that state's jurisprudence. See for example, Olver v. Fowler, 126 P.3d 69, 131 Wash.App. 135 (2006), where the Court stated in a footnote: "Various courts have sought an alternative to the phrase 'meretricious relationships' to describe relationships which meet the legal standards for equitable property distribution. [citations omitted] We share earlier courts' distaste for the antiquated term with its negative connotations, and substitute the phrase 'committed intimate relationship.'"
To read the opinions issued by the Washington Supreme Court today in Anderson v King Co. Docket Nos 75934-1, 75956-1:
Majority Opinion authored by Madsen, J
Concurring Opinion (Alexander, C.H.)
Concurring in Judgment Only (J.M. Johnson, J.)
Dissent authored by Fairhurst, J.
Dissent (Bridge, J concurring in separate opinion)
Dissent (Chambers, J. concurring in separate opinion)
Further resources: Associated Press article by Curt Woodward "Washington Court Upholds Gay Marriage Ban,"
Issues involving the rights of same-sex and cohabiting couples have long been of special interest to Jeanne Hannah. To contact Jeanne Hannah with your questions or to view her Family Law website, click here.