Broward County

Lesbian asks Broward judge to toss Florida’s gay-marriage ban, then dissolve her Vermont civil union

Broward Circuit Judge Dale Cohen.
Broward Circuit Judge Dale Cohen. Sun-Sentinel

It's a Catch-22 for a lesbian who wants to get married to her new partner.

Heather Brassner's spouse cheated on her four years ago and then disappeared, she said. Now, Brassner is legally stuck in a 2002 Vermont civil union because Florida is constitutionally banned from recognizing the relationship, and therefore won't grant her a divorce.

A Broward Circuit Court judge may soon fix that by becoming the third in South Florida to declare Florida's 2008 gay-marriage ban unconstitutional.

“A judge’s job is to protect the citizens. The way the law is written, they’re not allowed to do their job,” said Brassner, a Lake Worth art dealer.

“My hope is that I will be granted a divorce,” she said. “My assumption is that most likely the attorney general of Florida will appeal it. I’m willing to go to the next step. I’ll go all the way. I just want the same protections that everyone is born with. These are inalienable rights.”

Broward Circuit Judge Dale Cohen will rule anytime in Brassner’s case, according to Nancy Brodzki, her Coral Springs attorney.

“I have known Heather for a few years, through her [current] girlfriend, Jennifer. It was probably about two years ago when she first mentioned trying to get divorced,” Brodzki said. “She wondered if she could. ‘Can I get divorced?’ And the answer was, ‘No, you really can’t.’ ”

Brassner and her first partner, Megan Lade, were united in 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.

Vermont will not end Brassner and Lade’s civil union unless both women sign papers that they agree to the dissolution. Brassner, 41, said that’s impossible because she has no idea where Lade is.

“In this case, despite diligent search, the Petitioner was unable to locate Megan Lade,” according to a divorce filing. “Even a private investigator hired to find her was unable to do so.”

Vermont, Massachusetts and 17 other states, plus Washington, D.C., now permit same-sex marriages.

The gay-marriage battle is being waged across the nation. A federal judge last week ruled Colorado’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. And on Monday, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling that Virginia’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, a decision that could topple similar prohibitions in the Carolinas and West Virginia.

On Monday, North Carolina’s attorney general announced his office would no longer fight lawsuits seeking to overturn the state's ban, according to Freedom to Marry, a national advocacy group.

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.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is continuing to fight two right-to-marry victories in July by same-sex couples in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties.

On July 17, Monroe Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia ruled Florida’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional and that Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones of Key West could marry.

Eight days later, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel ruled that 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.

Wednesday afternoon, lawyers in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties asked that their cases be consolidated and appealed directly to the Florida Supreme Court. A spokeswoman for Bondi said the attorney general’s office had yet to respond.

In addition to the two right-to-marry cases, several state and federal lawsuits have been filed by same-sex couples demanding that Florida recognize their out-of-state marriages. Those cases are unresolved.

Brodzki expects Cohen to become the first judge in Florida to recognize an out-of-state marriage or civil union.

“Judge Cohen stated that he was not prepared to grant the divorce without addressing the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban — and the same-sex marriage recognition ban,” Brodzki said. “He asked me to file a motion for declaratory judgment so that he could rule on the constitutionality of the ban.”

Brodzki said that on Monday, Cohen told her Brassner needn’t be in court when he releases his decision “because I’m going to issue a stay to give the attorney general a chance to appeal, if I rule in your favor.”