Panel requests briefs, indicating it may rule on whether couples married elsewhere can divorce here
JOHN WRIGHT | Senior Political Writer
Nearly three years after the gay Dallas resident known as J.B. filed an uncontested petition for a divorce from his husband, H.B., the couple’s matrimonial fate rests in the hands of the state’s highest court.
The Texas Supreme Court recently requested briefs from both sides as justices decide if they’ll review the issue of whether same-sex couples legally married elsewhere can divorce in Texas.
J.B. and H.B. were married in Massachusetts in 2006 before moving to Dallas. After J.B. filed his petition for divorce in January 2009, Democratic State District Judge Tena Callahan of Dallas ruled in October of that year that she had jurisdiction to hear the case — and in doing so declared Texas’ bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately intervened and appealed Callahan’s decision, which the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas overturned last year, ruling that Texas judges cannot grant same-sex divorces because the state doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.
In February, J.B.’s attorneys at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld filed their petition for review to the Texas Supreme Court.
“They’re in limbo,” Akin Gump’s Jody Scheske said of J.B. and H.B. “They’re still married. They don’t want to be married. Texas can’t prevent them from getting married because they’re already married. All they want is the equal right to divorce that should be available to everybody.”
J.B. and H.B.’s is one of two same-sex divorce cases currently pending before the Texas Supreme Court. The panel has also requested briefs in State of Texas v. Angelique Naylor and Sabrina Daly.
In the Naylor case, the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin upheld a Travis County district court’s decision to grant a divorce to Naylor and Daly, a lesbian couple. The appeals court ruled that Abbott intervened in the case too late, but the AG’s office has appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.
Akin Gump is also representing Naylor and Daly. Scheske said the high court’s decision to request “briefs on the merits” in the two cases is part of its decision-making process about whether to review them.
“It’s actually not an indicator that they plan to take the case necessarily, but if they don’t request briefs on the merits, they will not take the case,” he said. “They only take a very small percentage of the cases that are actually petitioned.”
Scheske said he hopes the high court will accept J.B.’s case and decline the AG’s petition in Naylor. He said it’s also possible the court will consolidate the two cases. There is no timeframe for the Supreme Court to decide whether to review the cases, and at this point it’s unlikely oral arguments would be heard anytime before the spring.
“They can take as long as they want to or as short as they want to,” Scheske said. “So now we hurry up and wait.”
Asked whether he’d appeal an unfavorable ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, Scheske said he is unsure. “If we lost the cases at the
Texas Supreme Court, that would be the next and final step, but I haven’t discussed that with either client, just because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
A spokesman for the AG’s office declined to comment on the cases beyond the briefs it has already filed.
Ken Upton, a Dallas-based senior staff attorney at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said he believes the Texas Supreme Court will take the cases.
“I think this an awful lot for them to read not to take it,” Upton said of the briefs the court has requested. “They’re looking at what happened in Austin and what happened in Dallas, and I suspect they want to have a uniform result. Let everybody guess what that will be, but I’m not terribly optimistic.”
Upton said he thinks it’s unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would hear an appeal, meaning the impact of the cases will be limited to Texas.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 21, 2011.