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December 11, 2007

Rhode Island Court Holds Family Court Has No Jurisdiction to Grant Same Sex Divorce

In Chambers v. Ormiston, 2007 WL 4276781 (R.I. Dec. 7, 2007), the Supreme Court of Rhode Island held that the Rhode Island family court lacks jurisdiction to consider a petition for a same sex divorce.  The couple went to Massachusetts to get legally married and then continued to live in their home state of Rhode Island until they decided to file a petition for divorce.  Id. at *1.

The court explained that in order to determine whether the Family Court had jurisdiction over the case, it had to define marriage in the jurisdiction statute.  Id. at *3.  The statute, specifically, grants the Family Court the jurisdiction "to hear and determine all petitions for divorce from the bonds of marriage."  R.I. Gen. Laws 8-10-3(a).  The court then went on to consider what "marriage" means within the jurisdictional statute and explained that the term was unambiguous.  Id. at *3. Thus, the court stated that it only had to apply the words as they were intended by the legislature.  They gave the words their "ordinary meaning" by referring to a dictionary, but insisted that the words must be interpreted as of the year of the statute's enactment.  Id.  Consulting old dictionary editions (1955, 1961, 1963), the court found that the definition of marriage is excluded to a union between a man and a woman.  Id. at *4.  Thus, as this case involved a same sex couple, the court had no jurisdiction to dissolve their union because it was not a "marriage" within the terms of the statute. Id. at *7.

The dissent raised a very strong rebuttal, however.  The dissenting Justices (Suttell and Goldberg) explained that the couple are legally married under Massachusetts law--and that is all that matters here.  In fact, the Massachusetts courts have specifically found that Rhode Island citizens can legally marry in Massachusetts.  Id. at *10 (citing Cote-Whiteacre v. Dept. of Public Health, 2004 WL 2075557, at *15 (Mass. Super. Ct. Aug. 18, 2004)).  Because the couple is legally "married" under Massachusetts law, under principles of comity, the Rhode Island court has jurisdiction to hear the case.  Id. at *9-10, 13.  Specifically, the validity of a marriage is determined by consulting the laws of the place where that marriage was celebrated.  Id. at *13.  The marriage will be recognized by the new home State of the parties as long as it offends the public policy of the new State.  Id.  And, even if this same-sex marriage is void as against public policy in Rhode Island, the divorce laws contain a "catchall provision"  'Divorces from the bond of marriages shall be decreed in case of any marriage originally void or voidable by law . . . ."  Id. at *12 (Quoting R.I. Gen. Laws 15-5-1).  Thus, the court has jurisdiction over the petition for divorce.  Id. at *15.

The dissenting opinion points out a host of valid points.  Why did the court insist on defining "marriage" under the statute, when it is clear under well established interstate marriage law that the validity of a marriage, is determined by the place where the marriage was celebrated?  Clearly, the couple was legally married under Massachusetts law.  Joanna Grossman, in a FindLaw Post, also makes some very good points about the problem with the court's reasoning. 

December 11, 2007 in Family Law | Permalink

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