Alaska judge: Benefits rules too strict

Posted on 21 Sep 2006 at 4:59pm
By Associated Press

State’s view on types of benefits ordered by state supreme court too narrow, ruling says

JUNEAU, Alaska The state’s proposed rules on benefits for same-sex couples are too stringent, according to a ruling by a Superior Court judge in Anchorage.

Judge Stephanie Joannides also found the state’s view of an Alaska Supreme Court decision on the types of benefits to be offered too narrow. Hearings on the proposed regulation will be held in Juneau and Anchorage.

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling required the state to establish benefits to same-sex partners of its employees in response to an action filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and nine Alaska couples. The high court ruled that because same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying in Alaska, denying them rights extended to married couples deprives them of equal protection guaranteed under the Alaska Constitution.

The state’s proposed regulation would require same-sex partners to swear they have been in “exclusive, committed and intimate relationships” for at least a year.

In her decision earlier this month, Joannides said the ACLU argued that the proposed rules impose requirements on same-sex couples that are not imposed on married couples. For example, married couples don’t have to file annual affidavits reaffirming they are still married, as would be required of employees in same-sex relationships.

“The state may have a legitimate interest in ensuring that the government is aware when domestic partnerships end so that it does not pay survivor benefits to the wrong people,” Joannides wrote. “Requiring same-sex partners to file annual affidavits reaffirming their relationship, where they have already attested to the long-term and intimate nature of that relationship, seems excessively burdensome and not substantially related to administrative efficiency.”

Joannides said it was possible that the requirement could hinder administrative efficiency.

Michael Macleod-Ball, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said he is confident a policy will be developed before the end of the year. But he plans to continue the lawsuit if the rules are discriminatory.

“Anything that creates a different set of standards for same-sex partners who have established a roughly equivalent relationship as a married couple is discriminatory,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Virginia Ragle argued in court filings that the proposed regulations fulfill the high court’s mandate, even though it presents differences in the way same-sex couples will be treated.

“The Alaska Supreme Court did not order the state to treat all lesbian and gay couples in exactly the manner the state treats married couples for purposes of eligibility for employment-related partner benefits,” she wrote for the judge in response to the plaintiffs’ objections to the draft.

The objections are “a difference in opinion,” she wrote. The Supreme Court provided that the state was free to implement the mandate in many different ways. Ragle said that by arguing differences are constitutional questions, plaintiffs are trying to shape the policy as they want it.

“The cumulative effect of all these criteria may be too burdensome even where individual criteria are reasonable,” Joannides wrote.

The plaintiffs supported a provision in the Anchorage municipal policy proposal, which also is in dispute in the ACLU lawsuit, the judge noted. That policy would allow same-sex couples to file affidavits with a state registry with information supporting their relationships and would file changes in their status with the state registry.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 22, 2006.

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