Lambda Legal successfully persuaded New York’s highest court to affirm previous decisions upholding public employee spousal benefits for same-sex couples married out of state.
In a unanimous decision in two cases defended by Lambda Legal, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled that government agencies could continue to recognize marriages of same–sex couples performed out of state for purposes of granting spousal benefits to public employees. The judges also urged New York’s legislature to act on the marriage rights of same–sex couples.
The decision leaves intact the conclusions by lower courts in Lewis v. New York State Department of Civil Service and other cases that out–of–state marriages of same–sex couples should be given legal respect in New York. A national antigay legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), had appealed lower–court rulings to that effect.
On October 13, Lambda Legal Director of Constitutional Litigation Susan Sommer argued before New York’s highest court on behalf of two married same–sex couples, asking judges to reaffirm New York law and the previous court decisions.
Peri Rainbow and Tamela Sloan, long–time public employees who intervened in Lewis, are raising a special–needs child adopted in foster care. “We just want to be able to continue using the health insurance that provides important medical benefits for our family,” Rainbow said. “Thanks to this victory in court, we can.”
Lewis was filed by the ADF after the New York Department of Civil Service (NYDCS) extended health insurance to same–sex spouses of public employees married in jurisdictions where same–sex couples can wed. The policy shift had wide–ranging ramifications: With over one million individuals enrolled, NYDCS’s state public health insurance program is the largest in the nation, second only to that of the federal government.
In March 2008 the Albany County Supreme Court declared that the NYDCS was following the law, a decision upheld on appeal by the Appellate Division.
Lambda Legal also represented Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorheis in Godfrey v. Spano, a challenge brought by the ADF against the Westchester County Executive for issuing an executive order recognizing the out–of–state marriages of same–sex couples.
In September 2006, the ADF sued in an attempt to block the order. Lambda Legal intervened, and in March 2007, a trial court in Westchester County dismissed the ADF’s complaint. On appeal, the Appellate Division likewise ruled that the ADF had no case.
“The ADF has brought four different cases in New York against four different sets of government defendants,” says Sommer. “Twenty judges have ruled in those cases. All twenty have ruled against the ADF and in favor of the government and married same–sex couples. With government protections secured this round in Lambda Legal’s cases, the ball is now in the State Senate’s court.”
Advocates see marriage recognition as a key milestone on the path to full marriage equality. Lambda Legal first filed a marriage–equality lawsuit in New York in 2004. Although unsuccessful, less than a year later the New York Assembly passed a marriage equality bill for the first time, though it was not brought up for a vote in the State Senate.
New York Governor David Paterson, a vocal proponent of marriage equality, added his marriage–equality bill to the agenda of an emergency legislative session on November 10. While he has vowed to sign marriage equality into law by year’s end, State Senators have not yet put the bill, which has passed in the Assembly, on the floor for a vote.