March 12, 2010 | by Harley Dennett
Uncertainty remains after Md. marriage opinion

Even the experts are uncertain how Maryland courts will now treat legally married same-sex couples.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) promised state agencies would comply with Attorney General Doug Gansler’s finding two weeks ago that Maryland may legally recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages.

But circuit courts that handle family violence protection orders and divorce cases are not bound by O’Malley’s directive and must consider the opinion on its own merits, according to several legal experts who spoke with DC Agenda.

“It’s certainly their prerogative whether to follow that. I would like to think the courts would accept the opinion, but we don’t know,” said Barbara Babb, director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Families, Children and the Courts.

“Legislative direction would certainly be a help to the courts, but I don’t think it’s necessary for them to do the right thing.”

Family law contains several rights and administrative advantages reserved for married couples and designed to protect families in the event of divorce. If the courts choose to recognize Gansler’s opinion, same-sex married couples would have access to family breakdown services, child support, alimony and division of marital property.

Other safety-net statutes that are currently available to same-sex families but made easier with legal marriage recognition include child-in-need and civil protection orders in the event of neglect or domestic violence.

But it gets more complex during the creation of a family. Stepchild adoption would be significantly streamlined for married same-sex couples, Babb said, but not all marriage certificates are equal.

“Although Maryland currently authorizes second-parent adoption, it would be very clear — assuming the judges follow the attorney general’s opinion,” she said.

But children who have not been formally adopted by their non-biological parent could be left in legal limbo, Babb said, because presumptive parenting rights have not traditionally been recognized in Maryland courts.

“That would be one of the really interesting questions,” she said. “If the second parent hasn’t adopted the child, [would] the court give legal guardianship or legal authority to the non-biological parent? That’s a remaining question that isn’t as clear under the family law statute.

“I would suspect that in the law in the state where the couple was married, both parents would be seen as the child’s parent. If that’s the case, then Maryland would honor that. But the courts have chosen not to follow the de facto parent doctrine, so there are certainly areas of law that the court has taken pretty strident stand on with regard to same-sex couples raising children already.”

Other areas of law where courts extend benefits to married couples, such as the establishment of trusts, wrongful death suits, presumptive claims on estates, mutual debt responsibility and spousal legal immunities, also are dependent on whether courts accept Gansler’s opinion.

A further set of rights for married couples required of third parties are automatic in theory, but may ultimately have to be decided by courts, such as extending health insurance benefits to a spouse, the right to hospital visitation and making funeral decisions.

Jana Singer, a University of Maryland law school professor, said the attorney general’s opinion was legally sound and would be treated with greater weight than an ordinary “friend of the court” brief.

She said that one case could be all that is required to clarify the issue, or it could take many cases in different areas of law.

“If they decide to be narrower, they could say within this particular statute, Maryland law extends recognition in this context,” Singer said. “It’s more likely that we’ll get a broader opinion where they say recognition applies widely to Maryland law statutes.”

Equality Maryland’s study of state law found 425 statutes that utilize marital status of familial relationship as a basis for granting a right, privilege or restriction. Such restrictions, where a spouse has fewer rights than an individual, include conflict of interest prohibitions on areas like awarding of contracts to family members, corporate directorship limitations and exemptions from first right of purchase.

Dan Friedman, Gansler’s counsel and a former University of Maryland professor of constitutional law, was unable to speak publicly on how the courts should rule, but said that Gansler’s opinion was constitutionally valid and the attorney general could not be removed from office for issuing it.

Friedman wrote to House Speaker Michael Busch this week regarding the powers of attorney general after state Del. Don Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel County) threatened impeachment proceedings against Gansler.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is standing in support of Gansler’s opinion saying the state should recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages due to the doctrine of comity, in which contracts are valid anywhere in the United States if they are valid in the state they were created.

“Unless and until something contrary is said, same-sex families should consider themselves married in the state of Maryland and expect to be treated as such,” said David Rocah, staff attorney for ACLU of Maryland. “But it will take some time for it to be clear what rights are extended to them. All of the things couples did to protect their families, they should continue to do, in addition to expecting to be treated like the married couples they are.”

ACLU, Lambda Legal and Equality Maryland have created an informational sheet on the issue and are publishing it online at www.aclu-md.org.

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