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Angiulo: Ten Years of Same-Sex Marriage in Massachusetts

Monday, May 19, 2014

 

In May of 2004, the first same-sex marriage licenses were issued in Massachusetts. This occurred because of the November 2003 Supreme Judicial Court decision of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that ruled people in Massachusetts were free to marry the individual of their choosing. The basis for that legal decision is found in the text of the case itself.

What you might not know is that there wasn’t just one plaintiff in the Goodridge case. Ms. Hillary Goodridge was one of several individuals who resided in Massachusetts, had a same-sex partner in a long term relationship, and had been denied a marriage license in the Commonwealth after applying for the same. After that denial Ms. Goodridge, as well as the rest of the individual plaintiffs, filed suit in the trial court of Massachusetts. Their claims were two fold: first, that nothing in the law as drafted precluded same-sex marriage and second, that any prohibition on their choice of individual spouse was unconstitutional. The trial judge ruled against the plaintiffs, but as you probably know, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed that decision on appeal.

The fact that a court is involved in defining civil marriage should give you a hint that nuptials aren’t just about two kids in love holding hands. Marriage is, in fact, a contractual relationship between two parties that occurs only after said parties are properly licensed by the state to engage in said contract. The statutes dealing with marriage licenses are found in MGL c. 207 and there are various restrictions placed on issuance. Polygamy, certain familial ties, and age are all examples of circumstances that can result in an invalid marriage.

The plaintiffs tried to argue that nowhere in the laws did it say that same-sex marriages were prohibited and that such marriages were, therefore, lawful. Interestingly, the Goodrich court expressly rejected this view, in part, by citing the legal definition of the term “marriage” to be “the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife.” The court’s logic then proceeded to say the licensing statute didn’t need to expressly forbid same-sex unions because the term “marriage”, up to that point, in Massachusetts did not accommodate the plaintiffs’ license applications.

Which brings us to the plaintiffs’ second argument that limiting marriage to heterosexual partners was unconstitutional. This, the court decided, was the winner because marriage is a fundamental civil right of the individual. As such, marriage is an individual liberty and equity provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution provide residents freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into “protected spheres of life and ‘freedom to’ partake in benefits created by the State for the common good.”

Among the bases for the court’s finding was a principle underlying all legislation in the Commonwealth: that laws will be applied equally to persons in similar situations. In order for there to be some legislative scheme that violates the equal protection principles there must be a 
“legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm to the members of the disadvantaged class.” Of all the justifications put forward by the Commonwealth, none could meet the court’s requirements.

According to the Goodrich decision, the gender of parties entering into marriage don’t matter. As long as you embrace “marriage’s solemn obligations of exclusivity, mutual support, and commitment to one another” the Massachusetts Constitution affords everyone absolute equality under the law.

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at langiulo@gmail.com.

 

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