Supreme Court Won't Review Texas Decision Against Same-sex Benefits

by Chris Johnson

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to take up review of a Texas Supreme Court decision casting doubt on whether the 2015 ruling for marriage equality nationwide requires municipalities to offer same-sex spousal benefits to employees.

The Supreme Court announced it has denied certiorari, or refused to take up the petition seeking review of the decision, in an order list Monday reflecting decisions justices made during a conference last week Friday. It takes a vote of four justices to take up a case, but the vote on petitions isn't made public.

The petition was filed in September by Wallace Jefferson, an attorney at the Austin-based law firm Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP.

Jefferson told the Washington Blade after the announcement the rejection of the petition was based on ongoing review in the state judiciary.

"I believe the Supreme Court deferred review because the Texas Supreme Court remanded the case for further consideration," Jefferson said. "We anticipate that the Texas courts will fully embrace Obergefell's holding, just as the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has done."

Jonathan Mitchell, a Stanford, Calif., based attorney who represents opponents of same-sex benefits, deferred comment to Jonathan Saenz of the anti-LGBT group Texas Values, who hailed the decision in a statement.

"This is an incredible early Christmas present from the U. S. Supreme Court for taxpayers," Saenz said. "We're grateful that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed our lawsuit to go forward. Mayor Annise Parker defied the law by providing spousal benefits to same-sex couples at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in Texas, and we intend hold the city accountable for Parker's lawless actions and her unauthorized expenditures of taxpayer money."

To the consternation of gay rights advocates, the Texas Supreme Court in June determined the 2015 Obergefell decision "is not the end" of the same-sex marriage issue and state workers have no established right to obtain benefits, such as health insurance, for their same-sex spouses in the same way as other employees.

"The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons, and -- unlike the Fifth Circuit in De Leon -- it did not hold that the Texas DOMAs are unconstitutional," Justice Jeffrey Boyd wrote in the decision.

The case was filed by Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks after former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a lesbian, instructed her city to provide spousal benefits to city employees in same-sex marriages. Parker cited the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling against the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act as the basis for her decision. Pidgeon and Hicks contended state law, which at the time barred same-sex marriage, prevented Parker from taking that action.

Legal observers found the Texas Supreme Court's conclusion to be totally off-track with the Obergefell decision.

After all, the Supreme Court made clear in Obergefell the ruling compels states to afford the "constellation of benefits" of marriage to same-sex couples. The Texas decision also came the same week the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Obergefell by overturning an Arkansas Supreme Court decision upholding a state law against placing both lesbian parents' names on the birth certificates of their children.

Many observers pointed to the makeup of the Texas Supreme Court -- justices who are elected, not appointed -- as they reason they came to the decision. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican lawmakers urged the court to take the case after justices initially refused and allowed a lower court decision in favor of benefits to stand.

(Side note: One of the justices in the Texas decision was Associate Justice Don Willett, whom President Trump has nominated to a seat on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Trump also named Willett to his short list of potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees.

In part because of his decision in the Houston benefits case, LGBT advocates have come out against Willett's confirmation to the Fifth Circuit. Last month, the LGBT legal group Lambda Legal organized 26 other national, state, and local LGBT groups to express opposition to Willett before the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

The Texas Supreme Court decision fell short of outright denying spousal benefits for married same-sex couples and instead remanded the case to a trial court for reconsideration. The lawsuit remains pending before trial court.

Jefferson said there's "no telling" when the trial court will reach its determination and the case "will proceed according to the trial court's scheduling."

Mark Phariss, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that brought marriage equality to Texas, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Texas decision and expressed disappointment justices wouldn't take up the case.

"I am very disappointed that the Supreme Court did not grant cert today," Phariss said. "It means we must continue to fight in the courts in the State of Texas for full marriage equality. Today 'Equal Justice Under Law', as promised by the inscription to the front of the Supreme Court building, was not rendered. Ultimately, we will prevail, because history, justice, equality, and fairness are on our side."

The denial of the petition by the Supreme Court isn't the first time the federal judiciary has declined to review the Texas benefits decision.

In August, Lambda Legal and the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP filed a lawsuit in a federal court to affirm the Obergefell decision ensures health coverage and other benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees. Months later in November, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed the case on the basis that plaintiffs' claims weren't ripe for review.

However, Gilmore recognized a constitutional requirement to provide spousal benefits on equal terms based on the Obergefell decision.

"In light of this precedent, which the Texas trial court is required to follow, it seems constitutionally impermissible for the city to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of its employees," Gilmore wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced it won't take up the benefits case on the day before it's set to hear oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in which a Colorado baker is asserting a First Amendment right to deny wedding cakes to same-sex couples.

Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement the denial of certiorari in the Texas is disconcerting, especially on the day before justices are set to consider a major gay rights case.

"With all eyes on tomorrow's oral arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop religious exemptions case, the Supreme Court has just let an alarming ruling by the Texas Supreme Court stand which plainly undercuts the rights of married same-sex couples," Ellis said. "Today's abnegation by the nation's highest court opens the door for an onslaught of challenges to the rights of LGBTQ people at every step."


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