Maryland’s highest court decided Friday that even though same-sex couples aren’t yet able to marry in the state, they do have the right to divorce.
The Court of Appeals announced its decision in the case of Jessica Port and Virginia Anne Cowan, who were married in California in 2008 and filed for divorce in Prince George’s County two years later. A county Circuit Court judge refused to grant the divorce, writing that it would be “contrary to the public policy of Maryland.”
The Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that “a valid out-of-state same-sex marriage should be treated by Maryland courts as worthy of divorce.”
“It’s a really big deal,” said Michelle Zavos, Port’s lawyer. “It’s a huge step forward.”
The team of attorneys for the women argued that Maryland has always recognized out-of-jurisdiction marriages — even in cases that are expressly illegal in the state, such as uncle-niece marriages. “We felt pretty confident that this case would be treated no differently,” Zavos said.
The appellate court agreed, finding that the parties’ same-sex marriage is not “repugnant” to Maryland “public policy,” the bar it would have to reach for the couple to be legally turned away for a divorce. The seven judges didn’t miss the opportunity in the opinion to take a jab at the Maryland General Assembly, saying that to date, its treatment of same-sex relationships might “be characterized as a case of multiple personality disorder.”
In March, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. The law is slated to take effect in January but faces a potential roadblock in November when a measure to repeal the legislation will appear on the ballot.
Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), who wrote a 2010 opinion recommending that Maryland recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, thinks the decision, coupled with President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, could sway voters.
“This is one of the fastest, if not the fastest social movement in American history,” Gansler said. “Ten years ago, people would not have been talking about recognizing same-sex marriages. And 10 years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘Wasn’t that a quaint debate we had.’ ”
Even if voters approved the repeal in the November referendum, couples like Port and Cowan would still have the right to divorce in Maryland courts.
The decision has other potential implications, Zavos said, and could change how courts handle inheritances, medical rights and custody issues with same-sex couples.
“It’s just a huge shift of recognition of people’s relationships in Maryland,” Zavos said.
Port, a 30-year-old school counselor for at-risk youths, was unpacking from a field trip when she got the call from her attorney. “I was really excited,” she said. “It feels like in some way all of this craziness was somehow worth it.” She and Cowan, who have remained friendly, traded congratulatory text messages, and Port is planning to have a party with a cake that says, “Happy Divorce!”
“It’s not just the divorce that we’re celebrating,” she said. “But changing laws and helping out the community and being part of something great.”