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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 8, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 49
US Supreme Court declines to take Texas spousal benefits case
Section One
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US Supreme Court declines to take Texas spousal benefits case

Returns issue to Houston court

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The US Supreme Court has declined to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits, instead returning the issue to a lower court in Houston.

The high court announced on December 4 that it would not grant certiorari in Turner v. Pidgeon, a case in which the City of Houston sought to reinstate benefits for same-sex spouses of City employees. A writ of certiorari is issued when the Supreme Court agrees to hear an appeal that has come to it from a lower court.

At issue is whether the high court's Obergefell ruling supersedes Texas law, which continues to bar equal treatment of same-sex couples.

Houston's then-mayor, Annise Parker, authorized full benefits for the same-sex spouses of City employees in 2014. Parker's action was immediately challenged in court, and later in 2014 a Texas court ordered it reversed.

Houston appealed that decision, but before the appeal was heard, the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages nationwide in Obergefell.

Obergefell seemingly validated Houston's equal benefits policy, since all spouses should have equal status and should be able to access equal benefits, and the Houston case was sent back to the original trial court for a new decision in line with the federal ruling.

Anti-LGBT activists then asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in, which it agreed to do in January this year.

The Texas court disappointed anti-equality forces, however, merely noting that Obergefell did not answer or resolve all marriage-related questions, including whether governments must provide the same benefits to same-sex couples that are provided to opposite-sex couples.

Opponents of marriage equality launched a pressure campaign, sending a barrage of emails and letters to the all-Republican court, warning of retribution in the GOP primaries if they did not reconsider.

Republican leaders - including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton - added their voices to the campaign, telling the nine judges that the case offered an opportunity to limit the impact of the Obergefell ruling.

In a rare reversal, the Texas Supreme Court gave in, accepting the case and eventually ruling that there is no established right to spousal benefits in same-sex marriages.

Houston, now with Sylvester Turner as mayor, returned to court to settle the supposedly unresolved questions arising from Obergefell and establish the legal rights of same-sex couples.

Lawyers for Houston said that the Texas court blatantly ignored an essential point in the US Supreme Court's marriage decision - that equal treatment under the law demands equal access to all benefits of marriage regardless of the sex of one's spouse.

'Equal recognition of same-sex marriage requires more than a marriage license; it requires equal access to the constellation of benefits that the state has linked to marriage,' they argued.

The Supreme Court did not comment on its decision not to hear Houston's appeal, so any discussion of the meaning would be purely speculative, but Jim Griffin, a Dallas lawyer who advises businesses on employee benefits plans, told reporters that the high court rarely intervenes without a trial court decision to examine.

That will change once the district court reaches a decision on Houston's appeal, he said.

'The court's action should not be seen as the final word, but instead is just another milepost on the road to understanding what benefit plan rights are part of same-gender marriages. Even the Supreme Court knows that it will likely see this case again,' Griffin said.

GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) made a joint statement about the case echoing Griffin's views.

'This case is not over,' the groups said.

'It will now return to the Texas trial court for a final decision. It was an uphill battle to persuade the Supreme Court to grant review at this juncture because of the Court's firm rule about taking cases only after a final judgment, even where, as we noted in our friend-of-the-court brief, a lower court ruling is subverting an important federal policy. We hope and expect the Texas trial court, on remand, will uphold spousal benefits for employees married to a person of the same sex, as Obergefell and common sense require.'

Nevertheless, Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, warned that 'with all eyes on tomorrow's oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop religious exemptions case, the Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples.

'Today's abnegation by the nation's highest court opens the door for an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step.'

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