A deadline to appeal a Broward judge’s ruling in August that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional passed this week without an appeal from the Florida Attorney General, paving the way for the judge to finalize a divorce for a Lake Worth lesbian seeking to end her 2002 Vermont civil union.
The Fort Lauderdale case could also pave the way for same-sex marriages in Broward County.
“Now we know the state isn’t appealing and we will have the first valid same-sex divorce in Florida,” said Coral Springs attorney Nancy Brodzki, who represents art dealer Heather Brassner in her divorce from Megan Lade. A hearing in the case, before Broward Circuit Judge Dale Cohen, is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday for the divorce to become final.
“That very much leaves open the question as to whether the clerk of courts, on his own, will take it upon himself to say a judge in this circuit has [declared the ban] invalid and I will now issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples,” Brodzki said.
Broward County Clerk Howard Forman said he expects to decide by early next week.
“I’m researching it as quickly as I can. We’ve been researching it for months,” Forman said Thursday evening. “Florida’s changing a lot and we’re vetting the issue as hard as we can.”
Although Bondi did not appeal the Brassner divorce case, she did file appeals Thursday in two federal lawsuits brought by nine same-sex couples suing for Florida to recognize their out-of-state marriages.
Brassner and Lade entered into a civil union on July 6, 2002, in Vermont. That was two years before the first gay and lesbian couples in the United States were allowed to marry in Massachusetts, and seven years before gay marriage became legal in Vermont.
In 2008, about 62 percent of Florida voters supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in the Sunshine State: “Inasmuch as marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.”
Four years ago, according to Brassner, Lade cheated on her and disappeared soon after. Brassner, who still doesn’t know where Lade is, has now partnered with someone else and would like to marry some day. However, Florida law forbids recognizing the Vermont civil union and therefore won’t permit a divorce. And Vermont won’t dissolve the union without a signed affidavit from the missing Lade.
On Aug. 4, Cohen declared Florida’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional and that Brassner and Lade be divorced, but stayed his ruling until after the 30-day appeal period was over.
“This Court finds that Florida's ban on same-sex marriage violates the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the laws,” Cohen ruled. “Florida's prohibition on same-sex marriage denies some citizens, based on their sexual orientation, the fundamental right to marry, and does so without a legitimate state purpose. This Court finds these laws are unconstitutional and GRANTS the Petitioner's Motion For Declaratory Relief, declaring Florida's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.”
Since July, five judges, including Cohen, have declared Florida’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional.
On Aug. 24, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Tallahassee ruled in favor of the couples and also declared the state’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional.
Bondi and Florida Gov. Rick Scott had both been named as defendants in the federal suits filed in April by the ACLU of Florida and gay-rights group SAVE. Hinkle recently removed Scott and Bondi as defendants.
“We are very disappointed that Gov. Scott has taken this affirmative step to keep in place laws that he knows cause substantial, concrete harms to families across Florida,” ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley said Thursday in a statement. “He has the power to end this now, yet he has chosen to perpetuate the second-class status of lesbian and gay couples. State officials are only delaying the day when all Florida families are given the respect, dignity and responsibility that come with marriage. We will not rest until the marriages of all of Florida’s loving couples are recognized.”
On July 17, Monroe Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia ruled that Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones of Key West could marry. Eight days later, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel ruled six same-sex couples in South Florida also had the right to marry. Those decisions are valid only in the judges’ respective counties, and both rulings have been put on hold pending appeals by Bondi.
On Aug. 5, a day after Cohen’s ruling, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Diana Lewis ordered W. Jason Simpson should be personal representative in the estate of his husband, Frank Bangor, who died March 14. The two men, together 37 years, were married Oct. 23, 2013, in Delaware.
As of Thursday night, Bondi had not appealed that decision. She had until 11:59 p.m., then Lewis’ order became final, according to Simpson’s attorney, Drew Fein of Boca Raton.
Bondi’s office offered a terse comment why the attorney general did not appeal the Brassner and Simpson decisions: “We were not parties to those cases,” Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said.