August 10, 2012
By Jacob Combs
UPDATE:: Just in: the federal judge has agreed the case can go forward.
This morning, at 9 a.m. Pacific time, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada will hear arguments in Sevcik v. Sandoval, a marriage equality lawsuit filed by a group of committed gay and lesbian couples challenging the constitutionality of the state’s domestic partnership law. And although the Sevcik case may not make big news headlines the way that the Prop 8 trial has throughout its journey through the courts, it may end up being a even more important decision in the long-term fight for full federal LGBT equality.
Beverly Sevcik and Mary Baranovich of Carson City, the lead plaintiffs in Sevcik who are represented in court by Lambda Legal, have been together for more than 40 years, and have raised three children together. Along with the seven other couples included in the filing, Sevcik and Baranovich argue that Nevada’s domestic partnership law, which provides gay and lesbian couples with many of the rights and responsibilities of marriage without the title itself, violate their equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.
As I wrote in April when the case was announced, the Sevcik case is certainly a sibling case to the Prop 8 trial, Perry v. Brown, in that argues that laws denying gays and lesbians full legal recognition of their committed relationships is a practice abhorrent to the federal constitution. Unlike the Prop 8 case, however, in which lawyers argued that gays and lesbians have a fundamental right to marriage (a right that the Supreme Court has recognized as fundamental, albeit not explicitly for gay couples, many times in the past), the Sevcik case focuses only on making an equal protection claim.
Tomorrow’s hearing may not be a headliner because it is somewhat procedural: the court will consider two motions, one filed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval seeking to dismiss the lawsuit (citing the antiquated Supreme Court case Baker v. Nelson, which we’ve written about before on this site), and another by the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, the main proponent of the state ballot initiative that banned marriage equality in Nevada. In its brief, the Coalition seeks to intervene in the lawsuit as a defendant.
Three years ago, though, the Prop 8 case itself had similarly modest beginnings. Today, it is a major lawsuit followed closely by the media, and it will most likely garner even more headlines this fall when the Supreme Court decides whether or not to take up the case for review in its next term. If it does, the stage will be set for a landmark ruling that would huge ramifications for gay and lesbian couples across the United States.
But there are many court-watchers, myself included, who believe that the Supreme Court will in fact decline to review the Prop 8 case, opting to put off until a later date any decision on the issue of whether or not there is fundamental right to marry for gay and lesbian couples. If that were to occur, the Ninth Circuit’s narrow ruling, which expressly limits its effect (and its legal reasoning) to California only, would stand. That would be a major victory, since it would bring equality back to the nation’s largest state and the thousands of gay and lesbian couples whose relationships are currently treated as second-class in California.
But once Prop 8 is history, the central question of the Perry lawsuit, the one the Supreme Court may likely choose to avoid answering, will remain: is it constitutional for gay couples’ relationships to be denied the same recognition and respect as straight couples? And just as importantly, what is the road to equality for gays and lesbians who are not living in states like California, where public opinion is by and large favorable to marriage equality? When the American Foundation for Equal Rights filed the Prop 8 lawsuit in 2009, they made clear that their goal was nothing less than full federal marriage equality: they wanted their case to be the marriage equivalent of Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-sodomy laws across the country.
If Perry doesn’t end up being a sweeping victory for the LGBT equality movement like Lawrence was, that future landmark case will still be waiting in the wings. Besides Sevcik, there is only one other case in the country regarding a federal right to marriage that is currently making its way through the court system, Jackson v. Abercrombie, in which a district court judge ruled just this week against gay couples seeking full equality in the state. If either case makes its way to the Supreme Court, it won’t do so for several years, by which time the marriage equality situation in America may look quite different, with more states offering marriage rights and, potentially, a Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
Today’s hearing in Sevcik v. Sandoval is important because it is an incremental step in a larger legal and socio-political movement that looks likely to outlast the Prop 8 trial. And while it may not make headlines today, it just might make history some day soon.