The Maryland Court of Appeals on Friday unanimously ruled that same-sex couples who were legally married in other jurisdictions can get divorced in the state.
The 7-0 decision comes after Maryland resident Jessica Port and Virginia Anne Cowan of the District of Columbia appealed a Prince George’s County trial judge’s 2010 denial of their divorce petition. The women married in California in Oct. 2008, less than a month before the state’s voters approved Proposition 8 that banned nuptials for gays and lesbians. Port and Cowan separated eight months later and filed for divorce while they both lived in Maryland.
Attorney General Douglas Gansler opined in Feb. 2010 that the state could recognize same-sex marriages that were legally performed in the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions. Governor Martin O’Malley subsequently ordered state agencies to recognize such unions.
“A valid out-of-state same-sex marriage should be treated by Maryland courts as worthy of divorce, according to applicable statutes, reported cases and court rules of this state,” read the decision.
O’Malley welcomed the 21-page ruling.
“Today’s unanimous decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals confirms that the policy of recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages that we have implemented in the Executive Branch is valid and consistent with the law,” he said in a statement. “To treat families differently under the law because they happen to be led by gay or lesbian couples is not right or just. Today’s decision is another step forward in our efforts to ensure that every child is protected equally under the law. As a free and diverse people, the way forward is always to be found through greater respect for the equal rights of all; for the human dignity of all.”
Michele Zavos, a lawyer with Zavos Juncker Law Group who represented Port, applauded the decision.
“We’re all enormously excited because this decision establishes marriages between same-sex couples that are valid in another jurisdiction are valid in Maryland,” she said.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal served as co-counsel on the case.
“The decision could not be better for our community,” said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter. “The court accepted all of the arguments we presented. Although the holding is specifically about divorce, the analysis would apply to any marital benefit or protection.”
The court’s ruling comes less than three months after O’Malley signed the state’s marriage equality bill into law.
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Monday signed an executive order recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages. Then-New York Gov. David Paterson in 2008 directed state agencies to recognize the nuptials of gays and lesbians who legally wed in other jurisdictions.
Maryland voters will likely vote on a referendum in November that would bar marriage for same-sex couples. Both the plaintiffs’ lawyers and legal observers noted that the ban on nuptials for gays and lesbians would not impact the court’s decision.
“One reason this decision is so important is that the court’s ruling will not be changed even if, in the worst case scenario, the new marriage equality law were to be repeated in a referendum vote,” said Minter. “Valid marriages from other state would still be recognized in Maryland. Because same-sex couples can marry right next door in D.C., this provides powerful protection.”
“Same-sex couples in Maryland can be married and can have their marriages recognized,” added Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal. “Marriage has come to stay in Maryland.”