LGBTQ South Florida

Broward judge invalidates Florida’s gay-marriage ban, grants divorce to lesbian and same-sex partner

Heather Brassner shares a laugh with her attorney Nancy Brodzki after Broward County Circuit Judge Dale Cohen announced Brassner’s divorce from her same-sex partner in court Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.
Heather Brassner shares a laugh with her attorney Nancy Brodzki after Broward County Circuit Judge Dale Cohen announced Brassner’s divorce from her same-sex partner in court Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

In exactly four minutes, Broward County Circuit Judge Dale Cohen on Wednesday matter-of-factly granted a divorce to Lake Worth art dealer Heather Brassner. The proceedings were otherwise uneventful —except that the divorce involved same sex spouses, and two assistant attorneys general attended via telephone, listening and ready to appeal the judge’s decision.

“I’m granting the dissolution,” Cohen told Brassner, who made history by becoming the first openly gay person in Florida to challenge the state’s gay-marriage ban and get a divorce from a same-sex partner.

“For the first time in a divorce case, a judge has ruled that the state laws banning same-sex marriage and the recognition of those marriages is void and unenforceable because they violate Floridians’ rights to equal protection under the law and the right to due process,” said Brassner’s attorney, Nancy Brodzki. She asked Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott not to appeal Cohen’s ruling, which came nine days after the judge declared Florida’s 2008 same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional.

Brassner said she’s prepared to continue fighting the state for her “freedom.”

“I’m hoping that Pam Bondi says, ‘OK, she can move on with her life.’ I don’t think that’s what I’ll get, but it’s what I’m hoping for,” Brassner told the Miami Herald.

Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said that the attorney general’s office “will review the order when it is entered.”

On July 6, 2002, Brassner and then-partner Megan Lade entered into a civil union 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 soon after. Brassner now is partnered with someone else and would like to marry someday, but 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 Lade.

In 2013, Brodzki petitioned Brassner to get a divorce. The case was assigned to Cohen, who told the attorney that before he could dissolve the civil union, he would have to rule on the constitutionality of Florida’s gay-marriage ban.

On Aug. 4, Cohen became the third South Florida judge in 18 days to rule Florida’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional.

Cohen stayed his ruling and set a date in September to finalize Brassner’s divorce. Bondi did not appeal his ruling and it appeared Cohen would formally divorce Brassner on Sept. 10. The day before the final hearing, however, Cohen vacated his ruling: Brassner’s lawyers had not properly notified Bondi of the constitutionality challenge. Brodzki then refiled the case and this time Bondi announced she would appeal the case if Cohen granted the divorce.

On Dec. 8, Cohen again found Florida’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. If Bondi appeals, the Broward case would be heard in the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Two other gay-marriage cases already are awaiting action in Florida’s Third DCA.

On Aug. 21, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle of Tallahassee also ruled Florida’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional. He issued a stay that will expire on Jan. 5. Bondi has appealed to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to keep the stay in place. The ACLU of Florida filed a response Wednesday afternoon.

When Cohen announced Brassner’s divorce, he did not issue a stay. Brassner’s attorneys believe an automatic stay is not required in their case because Bondi and the state of Florida were not defendants.

Brodzki said the decision granting a divorce Wednesday did not mean that same-sex couples are free to marry in Broward.

“This was not a case of suing for the right to marry and suing the clerk of courts in Broward County,” she said. “Although they are inextricably entwined, they are two different legal issues.”

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