Thursday, December 14, 2017
Politics

Pam Bondi won't appeal ruling against Florida's gay marriage ban

The deadline passed late Wednesday without an appeal from Attorney General Pam Bondi's office of a Broward circuit court ruling in August that Florida's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional.

And although Bondi did file appeals Thursday in two federal lawsuits brought by nine same-sex couples, the Broward case could pave the way for Florida's first same-sex divorce — and even its first same-sex marriages.

Allowing the Broward case to move forward means Judge Dale Cohen can finalize a divorce for a Lake Worth lesbian seeking to end her 2002 Vermont civil union.

"Now we know the state isn't appealing and we will have the first valid same-sex divorce in Florida," said Coral Springs attorney Nancy Brodzki, who represents art dealer Heather Brassner in her divorce from Megan Lade.

Broward County Clerk Howard Forman said he expects to decide by early next week whether to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

"I'm researching it as quickly as I can. We've been researching it for months," Forman said Thursday evening. "Florida's changing a lot, and we're vetting the issue as hard as we can."

Brassner and Lade entered into a civil union in Vermont on July 6, 2002, seven years before gay marriage became legal in that state. Four years ago, according to Brassner, Lade cheated on her and disappeared soon after. Brassner, who still doesn't know where Lade is, now has a new partner and wants to remarry. However, Florida law forbids recognition of the Vermont civil union and therefore won't permit a divorce. And Vermont won't dissolve the union without a signed affidavit from the missing Lade.

On Aug. 4, Cohen declared that Florida's gay marriage ban is unconstitutional and that Brassner and Lade could be divorced, but he stayed his ruling until after the 30-day appeal period.

"This Court finds that Florida's ban on same-sex marriage violates the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the laws," Cohen ruled. "Florida's prohibition on same-sex marriage denies some citizens, based on their sexual orientation, the fundamental right to marry, and does so without a legitimate state purpose. "

Brassner has a 1:30 p.m. date Wednesday in Cohen's courtroom for her divorce to become final, Brodzki said.

In 2008, about 62 percent of Florida voters supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in the Sunshine State. Since July, five judges, including Cohen, have declared that ban unconstitutional.

On Aug. 24, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Tallahassee ruled in favor of nine same-sex couples suing for Florida to recognize their out-of-state marriages and declared the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional.

Bondi and Florida Gov. Rick Scott had both been named as defendants in the federal suits filed in April by the ACLU of Florida and gay rights group SAVE. Hinkle recently removed Scott and Bondi as defendants.

"We are very disappointed that Gov. Scott has taken this affirmative step to keep in place laws that he knows cause substantial, concrete harms to families across Florida," ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley said Thursday in a statement. "He has the power to end this now, yet he has chosen to perpetuate the second-class status of lesbian and gay couples. State officials are only delaying the day when all Florida families are given the respect, dignity and responsibility that come with marriage. We will not rest until the marriages of all of Florida's loving couples are recognized."

On July 17, Monroe Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia ruled that Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones of Key West could marry. Eight days later, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel ruled that six same-sex couples in South Florida also have the right to marry. Those decisions are valid only in the judges' respective counties, and both rulings have been put on hold, pending appeals by Bondi.

On Aug. 5, a day after Cohen's ruling, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Diana Lewis ordered that W. Jason Simpson should be personal representative in the estate of his husband, Frank Bangor, who died March 14. The two men, together 37 years, were married Oct. 23, 2013, in Delaware.

As of Thursday night, Bondi had not appealed that decision. She had until 11:59 p.m. before Lewis' order became final, according to Simpson's attorney, Drew Fein of Boca Raton.

Bondi's office offered a terse comment as to why the attorney general did not appeal the Brassner and Simpson decisions: "We were not parties to those cases," Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said.

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