Wednesday, May 7, 2008

NY Appeals court sends case back: County at crossroads over same-sex benefits lawsuit | | Democrat and Chronicle

County at crossroads over same-sex benefits lawsuit | | Democrat and Chronicle

Jay Gallagher and Gary Craig • Staff writers • May 7, 2008

The state's highest court Tuesday sent back to a lower court a case involving whether Monroe County has to recognize a marriage between two women, leaving the county to determine whether to continue its appeal challenging same-sex marriage.

The Court of Appeals refused to hear the case of Patricia Martinez, an employee of Monroe Community College, who sued the county after it refused to grant benefits to Martinez's female partner, Lisa Ann Golden, whom she married in Canada in 2004.

The state Supreme Court ruled initially that they were not entitled to benefits, but that was overturned 5-0 by the mid-level Appellate Division, Fourth Department, of the state Supreme Court.

The county petitioned the Court of Appeals to hear the case. But the court ruled Tuesday that the issue of damages has to be settled before it can hear the case. That issue is now before the state Supreme Court in Rochester.

Some supporters of same-sex marriage hailed the Court of Appeals action as a victory, despite the narrow grounds that led to the court's refusal to hear the case. "Today is a great day for fairness in New York state," New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

However, even Martinez's attorney, Jeffrey Wicks, acknowledged that the legal battle may not be over. Once the state Supreme Court resolves the issue of damages, the county could appeal again, Wicks noted.

County spokesman Noah Lebowitz said the county is deciding whether it will appeal again. "We haven't made a determination if we're going to pursue it further," he said.

Wicks said there was one clear benefit for gay and lesbian couples who were legally married elsewhere: Their marriage is, for now, legally recognized in New York, he said.

The appeal by the county placed a stay on the earlier action by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, that validated gay marriage from other jurisdictions. But now, since no appeal is pending, that stay is lifted, Wicks said.

"The appellate division decision is the law of the state," he said.

"This only will be disturbed if the county appeals again ... unless, of course, (County Executive) Maggie Brooks realizes that gays and lesbians are taxpayers too," Wicks said.

The county has argued that it didn't have to provide benefits because the state doesn't recognize same-sex marriages. Wicks countered that New York has long recognized marriages performed in other states and countries.

Massachusetts is currently the only state that allows same-sex marriages. Bills to make the practice legal are pending in the legislature, but aren't expected to pass this year.

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