Victory! First Circuit Removes Judge and Reaffirms Ban’s Unconstitutionality in Lambda Legal Puerto Rico Marriage Case

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April 7, 2016
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit today once again affirmed that Puerto Rico’s marriage ban is unconstitutional and ordered the District Court of Puerto Rico to enter judgment in favor of Lambda Legal’s plaintiffs and, in light of the egregious disregard of its prior order, ordered that the case be reassigned to a different district court judge.

In so doing, the First Circuit made clear that the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down discriminatory state bans denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry nationwide, applies to all people in the United States, regardless of whether they live in a territory or a state.

Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan said:

The First Circuit’s ruling is both unequivocal and unsurprising. There is no question that the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges applies to Puerto Rico just as equally as it does across the rest of the United States. In its ruling, the First Circuit agreed that the district court’s decision "err[ed] in so many respects that [it was] hard to know where to begin." Fortunately, the First Circuit corrected the district court’s errors, reaffirmed the equality and dignity of LGBT people,  and confirmed what we already knew: that LGBT people’s right to marry in Puerto Rico is here to stay.

This is not the first time that the First Circuit has stated that Puerto Rico’s marriage ban is unconstitutional and ordered the District Court to recognize the right of same-sex couples in the Commonwealth to marry. However, last month the District Court decided to ignore the previous order, defiantly holding that the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges did not apply to the island because it is not a state.

In its ruling today, the First Circuit said:

In ruling that the ban is not unconstitutional because the applicable constitutional right does not apply in Puerto Rico, the district court both misconstrued that right and directly contradicted our mandate.

The Court further made clear that the rights to due process and equal protection have already been incorporated as to Puerto Rico:

Marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed to all people in the United States by the Constitution. It cannot be diminished by the defiant wishes of a District Court judge, or stripped away just because one lives in a territory as opposed to a state. The First Circuit affirmed this today, and we are happy that  our clients and their families will finally have the clarity andfairness they have sought all along.

Last month, Lambda Legal filed papers—known as a mandamus petition—requesting that the First Circuit reassign the case to a different judge in the District Court, and enter judgment that both plaintiffs in the case and the government of Puerto Rico requested. Days later, the Puerto Rico government requested to join Lambda Legal’s petition.

After the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed that Puerto Rico’s ban was unconstitutional. After this, Puerto Rico began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and Lambda Legal and the defendants filed a Joint Motion for Entry of Judgment, which asked that all provisions of Puerto Rico law that ban full recognition of the marriage rights of people be stricken as unconstitutional and no longer enforceable. The District Court’s ruling last month denied that motion, a move overruled by the First Circuit today.

The case is Conde-Vidal, et al v. Rius-Armendariz, et al. 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 the press release.