CA Upholds Partner Law

Appeals panel finds no conflict with voters’ 2000 ban on gay marriage

A three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal has rejected a challenge to the validity of California’s Domestic Partnership Law.

An amendment to that law that took effect the first of this year granted registered partners most of the rights, benefits and responsibilities conferred by state government as marriage. That amendment was one of the last legislative accomplishments of former Gov. Gray Davis, the Democrat who was turned out of office in a recall in October 2003.

Ruling on April 4, the court upheld a decision issued last year by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Loren E. McMaster, who found that there were distinctions between marriage and domestic partnership substantial enough to find no conflict between the partnership law and an initiative passed by voters banning same-sex marriages.

California voters, in March 2000 approved Proposition 22, which states, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

The most recent version of the Domestic Partnership Law, effective on January 1, 2005, states, “Registered domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties under law… as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.”

Comparing these two provisions, the proponents of Proposition 22 charged that the California Legislature had adopted same-sex marriage under a different name, and claimed this was an unauthorized amendment of Proposition 22.

Under state law, the Legislature may not amend or change a statute that was adopted by the voters in a referendum without putting the question to another referendum for approval. The voters have never been asked to approve the Domestic Partnership Law.

McMaster found that because the Legislature had specifically excluded same-sex partners from enjoying several of the benefits of marriage, it could not be said that domestic partnership in California is marriage under a different name. Writing for the appeals court, Judge Arthur G. Scotland agreed with McMaster’s analysis.

For one thing, Scotland pointed out, an earlier version of the Domestic Partnership Law already existed when Proposition 22 was put up for a vote, but the measure only prohibits marriage and its proponents disavowed any interest in repealing the existing law during the 2000 campaign. Scotland listed and quoted the state constitutional amendments that have been adopted elsewhere over the past year that clearly go beyond prohibiting same-sex marriage, observing that had Proposition 22’s proponents sought to outlaw civil unions or domestic partnerships, they could have done so specifically. During the Prop 22 campaign, opponents of the measure charged that it might endanger domestic partnerships, but proponents stoutly denied that, asserting that they only wanted to ban same-sex marriages.

More significantly, however, Scotland pointed out that domestic partners are excluded from many important benefits of marriage. Under state law, they are not authorized to file joint tax returns, they must reside together (unlike married couples), and the procedures for dissolving the relationship are very different. Perhaps most significantly, domestic partners are eligible for none of the benefits of marriage provided under federal law, such as social security survivor’s benefits, joint federal tax filing or preferential immigration status.

The plaintiffs in this case, the leader of the effort on behalf of Proposition 22, will probably attempt to appeal the case to the California Supreme Court. They are represented by Alliance Defense Fund, a nationwide, right-wing legal advocacy group that specializes in opposing same-sex marriage and other forms of legal recognition for same-sex partners. The California attorney general’s office defended the law in this case, with amicus assistance from a coalition of lesbian and gay rights groups, including Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates.