Lambda Legal Asks Court of Appeals to Intervene in Puerto Rico Marriage Case

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March 21, 2016
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Lambda Legal filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit asking the court to make clear that last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted same-sex couples the right to marry, applies to Puerto Rico and to order the district court to enter judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.

The First Circuit has already stated that Puerto Rico’s marriage ban is unconstitutional and ordered the district court to further consider its decision in light of Obergefell. But despite the First Circuit’s instruction, last week, after not acting on the parties’ joint motion for entry of judgment, the district court instead issued an opinion holding that the Supreme Court decision did not apply to Puerto Rico because it is not a state.

Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Staff Attorney for Lambda Legal, said:

The unprecedented actions by the district court in this case defy both logic and settled law. Fundamental rights, like the right to marry, are protected by the Constitution, regardless of whether one resides in a state or territory. Today, we ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to intervene once again in our case so that it may rectify the district court’s abdication of its duties, defiance of settled constitutional principles, and intransigence in upholding the fundamental right to marry of same-sex couples in Puerto Rico. The right to marry of LGBT people in Puerto Rico is here to stay. Same-sex couples in Puerto Rico should not have to live in fear that they will not be able to marry or that their marriages will not be respected.

The papers filed today – known as a mandamus petition – also request that the First Circuit reassign the case to a different district judge in the District Court of Puerto Rico to enter the judgment that both the plaintiffs and the government of Puerto Rico requested. In July, after the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed that Puerto Rico’s ban was unconstitutional and invalidated the district court’s original ruling in this case, which had upheld the discriminatory marriage ban. The appellate court further directed the lower court to consider the challenge to the ban in light of Obergefell. Subsequently, Puerto Rico began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and Lambda Legal and the defendants filed a Joint Motion for Entry of Judgment asking that all provisions of Puerto Rico law that ban licensing and recognition of marriage for LGBT people be stricken as unconstitutional and no longer enforceable. The district court’s ruling last week denied that motion.

Gonzalez-Pagan said:

The lower court has willfully misinterpreted the law and singled out LGBT people in the Commonwealth as not deserving of the same rights as their fellow Puerto Ricans. The petitioners in this case, along with all of the same-sex couples who are already married or wish to marry, are simply seeking to be treated fairly. The victory in Obergefell, the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of liberty and equality, and the First Circuit’s prior mandate all make clear that same-sex couples on the Island have equal access to that fundamental right.

The case is Conde-Vidal, et al v. Rius-Armendariz, et al and was originally brought by a same-sex couple seeking recognition of their marriage, which they entered into in Massachusetts. In June 2014, Lambda Legal joined the lawsuit in representation of four additional plaintiff couples and an organizational plaintiff, Puerto Rico Para Tod@s.

Lambda Legal attorneys Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Hayley Gorenberg, and Karen Loewy are handling the case, joined by co-counsel Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, and Celina Romany-Siaca. Ada Conde-Vidal, who is represented by José L. Nieto, represents her wife.

Read about the case and petition.