April 10, 2012
By Jacob Combs
MetroWeekly’s Chris Geidner broke the news this morning that Lambda Legal is filing a new marriage equality lawsuit in Nevada on behalf of eight couples living in the state. Sevcik v. Sandoval marks the first time that Lambda Legal has sought equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians in federal court. Same-sex couples in Nevada can enter into domestic partnerships that provide many of the benefits of marriage without the title, thanks to a law passed by the legislature in 2009 over the veto of then-Governor Jim Gibbons, a Republican.
Lamdba Legal’s suit is no doubt in part inspired by the success of the American Foundation for Equal Rights in the Prop 8 case, Perry v. Brown, which led to historic rulings in favor of marriage equality in California both at the district and appellate court levels. Nevada, like California, falls under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, so lawyers in the Sevcik case could cite the Prop 8 ruling in the Ninth Circuit as precedent. Additionally, any appeal of the eventual Sevcik ruling would end up at the Ninth Circuit just like Perry did.
Despite these similarities, the legal arguments that Lamdba Legal are pursuing in Sevcik are not quite the same as AFER’s arguments in Perry. The central complaint in the new Nevada case is an equal protection claim that domestic parternships violate the civil rights of gay and lesbian couples. In the Prop 8 case, AFER made the same equal protection claim but also argued for a fundamental right to marriage under the U.S. Constitution. Tara Borelli, a staff attorney with Lamdba, explained to MetroWeekly that the group “certainly believe[s] that the fundamental right to marry includes same-sex couples, but this court doesn’t need to answer that question to rule for the plaintiffs here. We’re convinced that our equal protection claim is so clearly correct that we want to keep the focus on that claim.”
Lambda Legal’s strategy makes the Sevcik case a more conservative one than the Prop 8 case in Perry, and would appear to be a response at least in part to the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in the Prop 8 case, which declined to address the fundamental right question and instead focused more specifically on the circumstances unique to California’s situation.
In explaining Lambda’s complaint, Borelli said, “One of the reasons that we’re suing in the state of Nevada is that this is a particular equal protection problem that this case examines. It’s the kind of problem created where a state excludes same-sex couples from marriage deems them fit for all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage through a lesser, second-class status — in this case, domestic partnership. That shows just how irrational that state’s decision is to shut same-sex couples out of marriage.”
As we wait to hear whether or not the Prop 8 trial will be heard by an 11-member en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit (a process which, unfortunately, may take several more months), it will be exciting to watch another marriage equality case start up at the district court level. Like the several lawsuits against the Defense of Marriage Act, which build upon each other and make a convincing case for that law’s inherent unfairness, the Sevcik suit is a great step forward in winning marriage equality across the country.
UPDATE: Sevcik v. Sandoval has been assigned to Senior Judge Roger L. Hunt, with referrals to Magistrate Judge Peggy A. Leen. According to his Wikipedia page, Hunt is a Clinton appointee and a Mormon. Thanks to Kathleen for keeping an eye out for this.
UPDATE 2: Below you can read Lambda Legal’s complaint (another h/t to Kathleen for getting this to us):