Appellate Panel Upholds New York’s Marriage Equality Law

Governor Andrew, with his longtime companion Sandra Lee, at the 2012 LGBT Pride March in Manhattan. | DONNA ACETO

A unanimous panel of the New York Appellate Division has rejected a challenge to the state’s Marriage Equality Law (MEA) enacted on June 24, 2011.

The July 6 ruling, from the Rochester-based 4th Department, came in response to a suit bought by New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (NYCF), a group whose website describes its mission as influencing “legislation and legislators for the Lord Jesus Christ” and “voicing the pro-life and pro-family perspective.”

The group’s suit claimed the law was not validly enacted based on three factors –– the appearance of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo at closed-door meetings of the State Senate’s Republican caucus where the bill was discussed; Cuomo’s issuance of a “message of necessity” that allowed the Senate and the Assembly to vote on the bill without allowing members three days to study its final text; and the locking-down of a part of the State Capitol building during the Senate floor debate and vote.

The closed-door GOP meetings violated the state’s Open Meetings Law, NYCF alleged, while the “message of necessity” was “ultra vires,” or beyond the governor’s authority, and the Capitol lockdown prevented the plaintiffs from accessing senators, violating their freedom of speech.

Livingston County Supreme Court Justice Robert Wiggins, last November 18, granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the second and third claims and also ruled that the state attorney general was not a co-defendant in the case. Wiggins, however, refused to dismiss the first claim, holding that the Open Meetings Law may have been violated. He accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that a meeting of the Republican caucus that also included non-Republicans meant it could not be sheltered by the OML’s exemption for private caucuses. That exemption states that a private party caucus qualifies even if it invites “guests,” but NYCF argued such “guests” must be members of the same political party.

In unanimously reversing Wiggins and ruling that the Senate did not violate the law, Justice Eugene Fahey wrote that the plain meaning of the statute did not limit the term “guests” in that way. A Senate party caucus can invite anybody as a guest other than a member of the Legislature from a different party, said the court.

Since neither Bloomberg nor Cuomo were members of the Legislature, they could be invited as guests without the caucus losing its exemption from the requirement that public business be conducted in public.

Furthermore, no public business was conducted at the meeting, Fahey pointed out. There is no allegation that the Republican caucus –– which by itself constituted a quorum of the Senate –– took any votes at that meeting. Instead, the meeting was merely an occasion for the mayor and the governor to lobby the Republican senators to support the bill. Nothing in the Open Meetings Law defines lobbying as “public business,” and there is no precedent requiring that meetings between groups of legislators and lobbyists to discuss pending legislation take place in public.

The plaintiffs did not “allege that the Republican Conference agreed to pass the MEA at those meetings,” Fahey wrote, nor did they “allege that the Republican Conference essentially arranged for a close vote on the MEA by issuing four of its senators a ‘pass’ to support that legislation.”

When the marriage bill was approved on the Senate floor, four Republicans joined 29 Democrats in the 33-29 majority.

The court’s ruling went one step further, finding that even if the Open Meetings Law had been violated, that would not by itself justify invalidating the Marriage Equality Law. The OML gives the court the power, “in its discretion, upon good cause shown,” to declare that a violation justifies voiding legislation subsequently enacted. In this case, the court concluded, the plaintiffs failed to show “good cause.”

Even if NYCR had proven violations of the OML, its suit did not contend they “were the catalyst for the passage of the MEA. In fact, the various news articles attached as exhibits to the verified complaint detail the intense lobbying of individual senators with respect to the MEA, and note that both proponents and opponents of the bill took a similar approach of targeting potential swing votes on the issue. There is no allegation that the lobbying of individual senators violated the OML and, given their failure to link the alleged OML violations to the enactment of the MEA, which was approved at a regular session of the Senate that was open to the public, we conclude that plaintiffs failed to show good cause why we should exercise our discretion to nullify the MEA.”

The court declared that “defendant New York State Senate did not violate the OML in enacting the MEA and that marriages performed thereunder are not invalid.”

Though dismissed as a co-defendant, the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman defended the Marriage Equality Law in this case.

Noting that this ruling came in the last of four lawsuits challenging the MEL, Schneiderman, in a written release, said, “This is a great victory for marriage equality, and further protects the right of all New York couples to equal treatment under law. We are pleased that the court upheld the Marriage Equality Act, and found no defect in the meetings that preceded the passage of this historic law.”