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Baker v. Vermont
Baker v. Vermont was decided in 1999 by the Supreme Court of the state of Vermont. The decision represented one of the first high-level judicial affirmations of same-sex couples' right to treatment equivalent to that of traditionally married couples. The unanimous decision found that existing prohibitions on same-sex marriage were a violation of rights granted by the Vermont Constitution. As a result, the legislature was ordered to either allow same-sex marriages, or implement an alternative legal mechanism according similar rights. In 2000, the Legislature complied by instituting civil unions for same-sex couples.
The case was brought by three same-sex couples who applied for and were denied marriage licenses in the towns of Milton, Shelburne and South Burlington. The couples subsequently sued their respective towns, and the state of Vermont, requesting a declaratory judgement that the license refusal violated Vermont's marriage statutes and Constitution.
The state, along with two of the towns, moved to dimiss the lawsuit on the grounds that no relief could be legally be granted for the plaintiffs' grievances. The trial court, located in Chittenden County, granted the defendants' motion, ruling additionally that the marriage statutes could not be construed to allow same-sex marriages, and that the statutes were constitutional because they served the public interest by promoting "the link between procreation and child rearing".
The plaintiffs subsequently appealed the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier. The court received briefs and oral arguments, including an amicus brief from The Vermont Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the People For the American Way Foundation.
The unanimous decision of the Vermont Supreme Court first addressed the plaintiff's contention that the denial of same-sex unions was a violation of the Vermont marriage statutes. Though the statutes did not explicitly limit the definition of marriage to male-female pairs, the court held that both the common dictionary definition of marriage, in addition to the legislative intent (the relevant statutes were enacted in 1945) favored the interpretation of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Additionally, the terms "bride" and "groom" were interpreted as being gender-specific, further supporting the State's interpretation. Therefore, this portion of the plaintiffs' argument was rejected.
In the absence of a statutory right to same-sex marriage, the plaintiffs argued that the Vermont Constitution's Common Benefits Clause (Chapter I, Article 7), which guarantees all citizens equal benefit and protection of the law, guarantees same-sex couples' right to the substantial benefits and protections of marriage. The plaintiffs also addressed the lower court's justification for limiting marital status to male-female couples-- linking marital status to child rearing -- noting that Vermont law recognizes same-sex couples' right to adopt children, and to parent children conceived by natural and artificial means. They questioned a system that explicitly allowed same-sex partners to parent, but denied them (and their adopted children) the benefits and security of marriage.
The court first noted the significant difference between the State Constitution's Common Benefit Clause and the Equal protection clause of the Federal Constitution's 14th amendment, both in intent and provenance: the Common Benefit Clause was an original component of the 1777 Vermont Constitution, preceding its Federal "cousin" by several decades. Although Vermont is bound by the Federal Constitution, it is free to provide additional rights to its citizens than might be constitutionally granted to citizens of other states. The application of the Common Benefit Clause has historically been significantly different from the Federal Court's application of the Equal Protection clause. While the Equal Protection Clause is typically invoked only under very limited circumstances (with a heavy burden on the complainant to show discrimination), the Common Benefit Clause is read to require that "statutory exclusions from publicly-conferred benefits and protections must be 'premised on an appropriate and overriding public interest.'" [Baker v. Vermont Decision]
Having already determined that Vermont marriage statutes implicitly excluded same-sex couples from marrying, the court addressed the premise that such exclusions were justified by "overriding public interest". The court examined and rejected the State's argument that same-sex marriages would do harm by weakening the link between marriage and child rearing, based largely on the arguments provided by the plaintiffs. Next, the court acknowledged the reality that not every law could be made perfect, and that various practicalities needed to be taken into account. Examining the statutes, however, the court determined that there was no issue of administrative necessity or pragmatism that justified the arbitrary exclusion of certain individuals from the rights and privileges accorded by marriage. The court acknowledged that the legislature might justify the various child-rearing arguments made against same-sex marriages, if it adopted a consistently discouraging policy toward same-sex child-rearing. Noting that as recently as 1996, the legislature had authorized bills promoting same-sex adoption, the state determined that such a consistent policy did not exist (this provision, however, did outline a potential path by which the legislature might avoid providing marriage rights to same-sex couples in the future if it so chose.) The court also rejected as an argument the potential lack of inter-state conformity that might result from a legal recognition of same-sex marriages in Vermont, pointing out that Vermont already allowed for certain marriage contracts not recognized by other states (including first-cousin marriages), and noting that such concerns had not prevented the passage of similarly unique laws allowing same-sex couples to adopt.
The court held that the remaining arguments, such as those concerning the "stability" of same-sex couples, were too nebulous or speculative to be considered. Even though such arguments might apply to certain same-sex couples, it would not justify the inequalities placed on those couples who achieved permanent relationships. Additionally, the same arguments could similarly be applied to male-female partnerships.
Addressing the issue of remedy, the court declined to grant outright the plaintiff's request for a marriage license, and instead focused on correcting the acknowledged inequities of the existing statutes. Stipulating that "some future case may attempt to establish that notwithstanding equal benefits and protections under Vermont law -- the denial of a marriage license operates per se to deny constitutionally-protected rights," the court decided that this was not the issue being addressed by the case at hand. Instead, the court laid out a set of directives requiring the State to implement some system whereby same-sex couples would be granted equivalent statutory rights and privileges to male-female couples. This system could be implemented via the modification of the marriage statutes to allow for same-sex marriages, or it might be implemented via some system of "domestic partnership" arrangements (the solution eventually adopted by the legislature.) In making this decision, some members of the court complained that they were unnecessarily "abdicating" their constitutional duty to implement the most straightforward remedy, while the others responded that with this decision they had done a great deal, and the remaining decisions were political in nature.
Currently Vermont is the only state to maintain and enforce such constitutional protections guaranteeing same-sex couples the same rights and privileges accorded to married couples. A similar decision in Hawaii was rendered moot by that state's 1998 adoption of a Constitutional Amendment.
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