RI Supreme Court: Gay Couple CANNOT Divorce in Rhode Island


The state Supreme Court has ruled that a same-sex couple married in Massachusetts may not divorce in Rhode Island.
The court was split, 3-2, on the decision.
In the case, the court was asked by the Rhode Island Family Court whether Margaret R. Chambers and Cassandra B. Ormiston, two women who were married in Massachusetts, could divorce in Rhode Island.
In the majority opinion, authored by Justice William P. Robinson III, the court said that “well-established principles of statutory construction would lead us ineluctably to conclude that the General Assembly has not granted the Family Court the power to grant a divorce in the situation described in the certified question.”
According to a press release, the court wrote, “The role of the judicial branch is not to make policy, but simply to determine the legislative intent as expressed in the statutes enacted by the General Assembly. In our judgment, when the General Assembly accorded the Family Court the power to grant divorces from ‘the bond of marriage,’ it had in mind only marriages between people of different sexes.”
Later in the 30-page opinion, the court wrote, “We are cognizant of the fact that this observation may be cold comfort to the parties before us. But, if there is to be a remedy to this predicament, fashioning such a remedy would fall within the province of the General Assembly.”
The majority consisted of Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, Justice Francis X. Flaherty and Justice Robinson.
Justice Paul A. Suttell and Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg dissented.
In a dissenting opinion, according to the press release, Suttell wrote that the certified question was extremely narrow in scope, and that it sought recognition of a same-sex marriage for the limited purpose of divorce and no other purpose. Suttell wrote that the question did not address the eligibility of same-sex couples to marry under Rhode Island law. The couple were lawfully married in Massachusetts, and had satisfied the applicable domicile and residence requirements for divorce in Rhode Island.
“The subject matter jurisdiction of the Family Court does not turn on the gender of the parties; rather it turns on their status as a married couple,” Justice Suttell wrote.
“We are in complete agreement with the majority on one critical point, however. The legal recognition that ought to be afforded same-sex marriages for any particular purpose is fundamentally a question of public policy, more appropriately determined by the General Assembly after full and robust public debate.”

Full opinion here.

UPDATE: Apparently, the majority of the RISC took a contextualist approach. From the decision:

Upon contemplating the question certified by the Family Court, it became clear to us that the precise issue we must decide is ultimately the following: What is the meaning of the word “marriage” within the Rhode Island stature that empowers the Family Court to grant divorces—or stated even more precisely, what did the word mean at the time that the members of the General Assembly enacted the statute? It is imperative that we direct our attention to the meaning of this statutory term at that point in time.
When we are called upon to decide what the General Assembly intended when it enacted a particular stature, we always being with the principle that “[t]he plain statutory language is the best indicator of legislative intent.”…It is clear to us that in this instance we are not confronted with an ambiguous stature. Therefore we simply must determine what the words in this stature were intended to mean….
Words can have different meanings at different points of historical time, but it is the role of the judiciary to ascertain what meaning a particular word had when the stature containing that word was enacted. It is possible that today’ members of the General Assembly might have an understanding of the term “marriage” that differs from the understanding of those legislators who [created the Family Court] in 1961, but our role is to interpret what was enacted and not to speculate as to what some other not-yet-enacted statute might say or mean.
With respect to the case at hand, there is absolutely no reason to believe that, when the act creating the Family Court became law in 1961, the legislators understood the word marriage to refer to any state other than “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex.” The quoted words are the definition of marriage that is set forth in the 1961 edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. {They cite other similar definitions – ed.} In each case, the primary dictionary definition of marriage refers only to a union between a man and a woman.
It is pertinent to note that Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, writing in 2003 for the plurality in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health…expressly acknowledged that the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court in that case “marks a significant change in the definition of marriage as it has been inherited from the common law, and understood by many societies for centuries.”…
As we understand the language of the existing divorce stature, it does not constitute “express language conferring subject-matter jurisdiction upon the Family Court” whereby it could entertain a divorce petition involving two persons of the same sex….Moreover, “[i]n the absence of a clear legislative intent to the contrary, such jurisdiction cannot be inferred.”…The plain meaning of the word “marriage”…indicates to us that the Family Court is without jurisdiction to entertain the instant petition for divorce.

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16 years ago

The court may have just forced the General Assembly confrontation both sides of the SSM debate have been putting off, perhaps for too long.
Get your helmets, and don’t count on anything substantive being done about the state’s other problems in the next session.
Gordon Fox, you might as well bolt the Dem leadership now before the M&M boys stick the knife in your back.

16 years ago

Why would the couple need a divorce?
They don’t reside in Massachusetts so their crossing the border to SSM would be merely symbolic. A political statement of sorts.
It did not change their status in Rhode Island, surely?

16 years ago

Chairm, a marriage is binding if it takes place in any state where that marriage is legal, regardless of the resident state of the couple. It would be like an opposite gender couple who resides in RI but runs off to Vegas for the weekend and gets married. When they get back to RI, they’re definitely still married.
[By the way, the two women who were the subject of this case the can get divorced if one of them resides in Massachusetts for a year.]
While I remain completely ambiguous about same-sex marriage, the judicial philosophy reflected in this part of the majority opinion is correct and much appreciated:
“The role of the judicial branch is not to make policy, but simply to determine the legislative intent as expressed in the statutes enacted by the General Assembly.”

Justin Katz
16 years ago

… a marriage is binding if it takes place in any state where that marriage is legal, regardless of the resident state of the couple.

That’s not necessarily correct. For one thing, if the marriage is against the public policy of the home state, then it is void. In this case, I would argue that the relationship doesn’t even constitute marriage as it is defined in Rhode Island law.

16 years ago

The issue is whether this or any same-sex couple married in Massachusetts would be eligible for the other benefits of marriage in RI such as being able to file for taxes jointly, whether an employer would treat the other member as a spouse for benefits purposes, inheritance or other legal, social and financial benefits associated with marriage.
I don’t know the answer but I doubt that, for example, RI employers who subsidize health benefits to a spouse would also be required to do so for a same-couple who were married in MA. Yet if they would be, then under something like the full faith & credit clause, it seems that would be a strong precedent to also provide the benefits of granting a divorce.

16 years ago

Monique, Justin’s comment provides the basis for my question; and msteven has addressed the core of the connundrum. Justice Greaney wrote a concuring opinion on Goodridge. He reassured that Massachusetts law prevented marriages of nonresidents if the union would not be a marriage back home. If I recall correctly, SSMers who like to point to Massachusetts as the prototypical experiment that federalism makes possible, also gushed with this reassurance. In other word, no federal marriage amendment is needed to prevent Massachusetts from exporting SSM to the rest of the country. My understanding is that the SJC in Massachusetts has subsequently blurred the clear line that Greaney depended on. In fact, the significant potential for a chaotic situation was one of the arguments made by the state against a redefinition proposed by the Goodridge plaintiffs. The SJC now says that unless a state explicitly says marriage is both-sexed, either in statute or in provision in its state constitution, the Massachusetts court system can rule that SSM is lawful in that state. This might seem like a formula to prevent exportation to states that have not enacted SSM. But, nope, a trial court in Massachusetts has decided for Rhode Islanders and New Mexicans that SSM is marriage in their states! Heh. So very cute these nuanced circumventions of the law in sister states, yes? Anyway, the point is that the Massachusetts court is in dreamland. If they imagine that they SSM is lawful unless the man-woman criterion is explicitly written into the law, then, they do not imagine that Massachusetts exists in a united United States of America. However, the Rhode Island high court has ruled that marriage is both-sexed in that state. So the Massachusetts trial court was mistaken, right? Well, given this decision in Rhode Island, marriage is the union… Read more »

16 years ago

I should point out, of course, that pre-Goodridge, the marriage statutes in Massachusetts explicitly recognized marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Even the chief justice who wrote the Goodridge opinion acknowledged that much.
But I guess the other states do not get the benefit of the doubt UNLESS it is to err in favor of SSM.
Meanwhile, if another state checked the Massachusetts marriage statutese what do you think they would discover?
That’s right, that marriage remains the union of a man and a woman.
The statutes have not been changed. The SJC’s order was directed to the legislature which has not acted. The order has long-expired. Due to seperation of powers in republican government, the SJC cannot order the executive branch to legislate in the stead of the legislators.
Naturaly, the pro-SSM advocates are complaining, in the wake of the RI Supreme Court decision, that the couple seeking divorce are in legal limbo.
Well, legal limbo is the name of the game, it seems.
Anyone seen Agent 99, lately? KAOS is calling forwarding now.

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