LGBTQ South Florida

Bondi formally opposes granting divorce to Lake Worth lesbian

Heather Brassner and new partner Jennifer Feagin at the Broward County Courthouse after Circuit Judge Dale Cohen initially ruled in August to recognize Brassner's Vermont civil union and grant her a divorce from her estranged former partner. Cohen later vacated his own ruling after learning Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office had not been properly notified of the case.
Heather Brassner and new partner Jennifer Feagin at the Broward County Courthouse after Circuit Judge Dale Cohen initially ruled in August to recognize Brassner's Vermont civil union and grant her a divorce from her estranged former partner. Cohen later vacated his own ruling after learning Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office had not been properly notified of the case. MIAMI HERALD FILE

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has opposed granting a divorce to Heather Brassner, a Lake Worth lesbian who wants to dissolve her Vermont civil union to another woman.

“If this Court reaches the constitutional issues, it should uphold the challenged laws because Florida’s marriage laws do not violate the United States Constitution,” Bondi wrote Wednesday night in a Broward County circuit court filing.

On Aug. 4, Broward Circuit Judge Dale Cohen became the third South Florida judge in 18 days to declare Florida's gay marriage ban unconstitutional, following judges in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties. Since then, a Palm Beach County and a federal judge in Tallahassee also have ruled against the ban, which Florida voters passed in 2008.

Heather Brassner and Megan 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.

Four years ago, according to Brassner, Lade cheated on her and disappeared. Brassner, who still does not 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.

After Brassner sued for divorce, Bondi's office did not intervene or appeal Cohen's declaratory judgment against the marriage ban.

When Cohen dismissed the ban and announced he would grant Brassner’s divorce, some LGBT activists said they would demand the Broward clerk’s office issue same-sex marriage licenses, as well. But a day before the final Brassner divorce hearing, Cohen vacated his own order after learning Brassner’s lawyer had not properly notified the state when the case began.

Brassner’s attorney, Nancy Brodzki, immediately refiled the case. This time, however, Bondi intervened and asked Cohen not to grant Brassner a divorce.

“The petitioner seeks a declaration that Florida’s marriage laws are unconstitutional. Under Florida law, though, no party is entitled to a declaratory judgment unless he or she demonstrates ‘there is a bona fide, actual, present practical need for the declaration’ and ‘that the antagonistic and adverse interest are all before the court,’” Bondi wrote in her motion, citing a 1991 Florida case. “The petitioner nevertheless seeks a declaratory judgment against the absent respondent, who is not before the court.”

Bondi also challenged the validity of dissolving a Vermont civil union in Florida.

“The petitioner also seeks a declaration regarding the Court’s ability to dissolve same-sex marriages, even though the relationship at issue here is a Vermont civil union — not a same-sex marriage. No Florida appellate court has held that a civil union is equivalent to marriage for purposes of Florida’s dissolution of marriage laws. Because the petitioner cannot demonstrate ‘a bona fide, actual, present practical need for the declaration’ she seeks, this Court ‘lacks jurisdiction to render declaratory relief.’”

Cohen has scheduled a lawyers conference call on the case for Wednesday, Brodzki said.

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