Saturday, December 8, 2007

Oh, Come On

The Widget:

Court: Rhode Island Supreme Court
Judge(s): Robinson (majority); Suttell (dissent)
Subject: Gay marriage
Tone(s): Mulish (majority); devastating (dissent)
Importance: 6.7

So here’s the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s decision in Chambers v. Oriston, No. 2006-340. The Court holds that a lesbian couple is not entitled to a divorce in Rhode Island because Rhode Island doesn’t recognize Massachusetts gay marriages.*

The heart of the opinion is the conclusion that since Webster’s defines marriage as “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex”, the couple never was really married. In a footnote, the Court states “We are in no sense disregarding Judge Learned Hand’s advice that ‘courts should not make a fortress out of the dictionary.’” Which is a great point! Even though that’s really exactly what the Court is doing.

The dissenting judges, who begin their comprehensive response at page 17, make a lot of persuasive points. But the most persuasive is their invocation of Loughran v. Loughran, 292 U.S. 216 (1934). There, the Supreme Court said “Marriages not polygamous or incestuous, or otherwise declared void by statute, will, if valid by the law of the State where entered into, be recognized as valid by every other jurisdiction.”

An effective majority opinion would have somehow anticipated this argument and countered it. This majority opinion, however, does no such thing. But they do have Webster’s on their side. And that’s not nothing. It’s just next to nothing.

*Neither party actually raised this argument, leading to a fair inference that the Court went out of its way to hold as it did. Why would it do that?

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