Same-Sex Couples Must Be Allowed To Marry In New York, Court Rules; Lambda Legal Says Decision Is 'Historic, Well Reasoned and Fair'

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Lambda Legal brought the case under the state Constitution, saying gay New Yorkers weren't being treated equally under the law because they couldn't marry
February 4, 2005

(New York, February 4, 2005) — A New York State court ruled today that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry, in a decision that Lambda Legal called “a historic ruling that delivers the state Constitution’s promise of equality to all New Yorkers.” Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit last year, representing five same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses in New York City.

In a 62-page decision issued this morning in New York City, State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan said that the New York State Constitution guarantees basic freedoms to lesbian and gay people – and that those rights are violated when same-sex couples are not allowed to marry. The ruling said the state Constitution requires same-sex couples to have equal access to marriage, and that the couples represented by Lambda Legal must be given marriage licenses.

“I was even more moved than I thought I’d be when I heard about this ruling. All of us cried – me, Mary Jo and our 15-year-old daughter. For the first time, our family is being treated with the respect and dignity that our friends, coworkers and neighbors automatically have,” said Jo-Ann Shain, a 51-year-old New York City resident who is a plaintiff in the case with her partner, Mary Jo Kennedy, 49. “Last week, Mary Jo and I celebrated our 23rd anniversary together, but we’ve never had all the protections and rights that come with marriage. We need these protections to take responsibility for each other and for our daughter, and we are enormously grateful that the court saw that and said our family should be treated equally.”

“This is a historic ruling that delivers the state Constitution’s promise of equality to all New Yorkers,” said Susan Sommer, Supervising Attorney at Lambda Legal and the lead attorney on the case. “The court recognized that unless gay people can marry, they are not being treated equally under the law. Same-sex couples need the protections and security marriage provides, and this ruling says they’re entitled to get them the same way straight couples do.”

In today’s ruling, Justice Ling-Cohan said, “Simply put, marriage is viewed by society as the utmost expression of a couple’s commitment and love. Plaintiffs may now seek this ultimate expression through a civil marriage.” The ruling (which is stayed for 30 days in case the city chooses to appeal) says the New York City clerk may no longer deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. If the city chooses to appeal the case, it has about a month to file a notice in state appeals court. Justice Ling-Cohan’s ruling also said, “Similar to opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples are entitled to the same fundamental right to follow their hearts and publicly commit to a lifetime partnership with the person of their choosing. The recognition that this fundamental right applies equally to same-sex couples cannot legitimately be said to harm anyone.”

“This ruling is historic, well reasoned and, above all, fair,” Sommer said. “Our clients got full and fair consideration in this case, which is all we asked for. The court obviously looked carefully at the state Constitution and the rights and protections that same-sex couples were being denied because they couldn’t marry. This decision is grounded solidly in the law and the state’s Constitution.”

Justice Ling-Cohan has been a New York Supreme Court Justice since 2002. Before that, she was a judge in Civil Court for the City of New York for seven years. Voters in Manhattan (in districts including Chinatown and Lower Manhattan) elected her to both positions. When Ling-Cohan ran for the New York Supreme Court, she was the only candidate in a field of 12 who was nominated by four parties, including the Republican and Democratic parties. She received 50,384 votes on the Republican Party line; her support from the Republican Party line was higher than the majority of the other candidates.

The 2000 U.S. Census counted 594,391 households in the country where same-sex couples live together. Of those, 46,490 (or 7.8 percent of the national total) are in New York State, and 25,906 (or 4.3 percent of the national total) are in New York City. City and state law provides some limited protections and rights to same-sex couples.

Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit in March 2004 seeking marriage licenses for same-sex couples in New York, arguing that denying marriage to same-sex couples violates the state Constitution’s guarantees of equality, liberty and privacy for all New Yorkers. The case was the first of its kind to be filed in New York since the Massachusetts high court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to full marriage under that state’s Constitution.

Lambda Legal is currently litigating cases seeking marriage for same-sex couples in New Jersey, California (with NCLR and ACLU) and Washington State (with NWLC). The Washington State Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in that lawsuit on March 8, and a decision is pending from the trial court in the California case. A New Jersey state appeals court heard arguments in that case in December, and a decision is pending.

Sommer is Lambda Legal’s lead attorney on the case, Hernandez v. Robles. Jeffrey S. Trachtman and Norman C. Simon of the New York City law firm, Kramer Levin, are co-counsel on the case.


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