Friday, December 9, 2016
In a closely divided (4-3) opinion in Smith v. Pavan, the Arkansas Supreme Court concluded that the state statutes governing the issuance of birth certificates to children could deny same-sex parents to be listed as parents.
Essentially, the majority opinion, authored by Associate Justice Josephine Hart found that the United States Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges declaring same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional was inapposite:
Obergefell did not address Arkansas’s statutory framework regarding birth certificates, either expressly or impliedly. Rather, the United States Supreme Court stated in Obergefell that “the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.
Justice Hart noted that the Court in Obergefell did mention birth certificates "only once" and quoted the passage, construing it being related "only" to the Court's observation that states conferred benefits on married couples, which in part demonstrated that “ the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples.”
Not surprisingly, dissenting justices construed this same passage as providing support for the opposite conclusion. In a well-wrought dissent by Justice Paul Danielson, he argues:
[T]he United States Supreme Court held in Obergefell that states are not free to deny same-sex couples “the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.” Importantly, the Court listed “birth and death certificates” specifically as one of those benefits attached to marital status. Thus, the majority is clearly wrong in holding that Obergefell has no application here. Indeed, one of the cases on review in Obergefell, Tanco v. Haslam, 7 F. Supp. 3d 759 (M.D. Tenn. 2014), rev’d sub nom. DeBoer v. Snyder, 772 F.3d 388 (6th Cir. 2014), involved a same-sex married couple who challenged the Tennessee law providing that their child’s nonbiological parent would not be recognized as the child’s parent, which affected various legal rights that included the child’s right to Social Security survivor benefits, the nonbiological parent’s right to hospital visitation, and the nonbiological parent’s right to make medical decisions for the child.
Furthermore, one of the four principles discussed by the Court in Obergefell, for purposes of demonstrating that the reasons marriage is fundamental under the Constitution apply with equal force to same-sex couples, is that the right to marry “safeguards children and families and thus draws meaning from related rights of childrearing, procreation, and education.” The opinion makes clear that the protection of children and the stability of the family unit was a foundation for the Court’s decision.
[citations to Obergefell omitted].
For the majority, biology was the paramount "truth" that vital records should reflect. Moreover, this "truth" is evinced in dictionary definitions of words such as "husband" and "father," a strategy in cases that Obergefell rejected.
However, the relevance of Smith v. Pavan even in Arkansas is unclear. As Justice Rhonda Wood argued, the case may not have warranted a decision by the court:
Two key circumstances have developed since this litigation started. First, plaintiffs received relief in that the State has issued the appropriate birth certificates to them. Second, the State concedes that the relevant statutes involving determination of parentage must comply with Obergefell, including the statute governing the status of people born via artificial insemination. These developments render the majority’s decision provisional.
Moreover, there were (new) facts in dispute, despite the procedural posture of summary judgment:
First, according to the affidavit of the State Registrar of Vital Records, the Department of Health will issue birth certificates listing both same-sex parents if the hospital submits documentation reflecting that fact. However, the parties disputed at oral argument how the department’s decision is actually being applied. There are no facts in the record to resolve this dispute. Moreover, the State has now conceded that children born of artificial insemination should have both parents deemed the natural parents, whether same-sex or opposite sex, under Ark. Code Ann. § 9-10-201 (Repl. 2015) and asserts that it will place both same-sex parents on the birth certificate under the State’s new interpretation of this statute. This statute provides that “[a]ny child born to a married women by means of artificial insemination shall be deemed the legitimate natural child of the women and the women’s husband [read spouse] if the [spouse] consents in writing to the artificial insemination.” Ark. Code Ann. § 9-10-201(a). It is likely, therefore, that a same-sex couple will now have both spouses’ names listed on the original birth certificate without a court order, so long as the child was conceived via artificial insemination, the same-sex marriage occurred prior to the insemination, and the non-biological parent consented to the insemination. Appellants and appellees both conceded at oral argument this would resolve the challenge by two of the three same-sex marriage couples.
It is possible that Arkansas would revoke its concessions given the state supreme court's ruling, but if the state does, then this seems a clear case for a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.
[image: Arkansas Supreme Court building]