VICTORY: Appeals court blocks recall of El Paso officials who voted in favor of DP benefits

Friday's ruling was a major setback for anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown, who may also face criminal charges.

In a victory for supporters of LGBT equality, a Texas appeals court has rejected an effort to recall El Paso Mayor John Cook and two other council members over their support of domestic partner benefits for unmarried city employees.

Texas’ 8th Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Friday that recall organizers, led by anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown, broke the law in gathering petition signatures for the recall election, which had been scheduled for this spring.

After the El Paso City Council first approved DP benefits for gay and straight city workers in 2009, Brown spearheaded a ballot measure that overturned them in 2010. Last year, after the City Council voted to restore DP benefits, Brown’s group launched its recall effort, which was challenged in court by Cook. A county judge initially ruled against Cook, but the appeals court overturned that decision.

The El Paso chapter of PFLAG issued a statement Friday saying: “It is with jubilation that the recall election, supported by Christian bigots, has finally reached the finish line. The judges clearly saw that this attempt was purely done out of hatred, disguised as the word of God.”

Brown and others may also face criminal charges based on the appeals court’s ruling, which found that his Word of Life Church violated a statute prohibiting corporate political contributions to recall elections. The court also found that Brown’s group, El Pasoans for Traditional Family Values, illegally raised money in support of the recall when it wasn’t registered as a political action committee.

Brown said recall organizers will appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, but an attorney for Mayor Cook believes it’s highly unlikely the high court would take the case. Cook, who cast the deciding vote in favor of restoring DP benefits last year, reportedly has spent $225,000 on his lawsuit seeking to block the recall. The mayor said he now plans to seek monetary damages against Brown’s group.

—  John Wright

BREAKING: Texas appeals court upholds gay divorce, rules against AG’s office in Austin case

Angelique Naylor

A state appeals court has upheld a divorce that was granted to a lesbian couple in Austin last year, saying Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott lacks standing to appeal the divorce because he intervened in the case too late.

“Because the State lacks standing to appeal, we dismiss this appeal for want of jurisdiction,” a three-judge panel of Texas’ 3rd District Court of Appeals wrote in its decision posted earlier today.

Travis County District Judge Scott Jenkins granted a divorce to lesbian couple Angelique Naylor and Sabina Daly last February. Naylor and Daly married in Massachusetts in 2004 before returning to Texas and adopting a child. Abbott’s office appealed Jenkins’ decision, arguing that judges in Texas cannot grant same-sex divorces because the state doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

Abbott’s office won an appeal last year of a same-sex divorce in Dallas, where the 5th District Court of Appeals ruled in his favor.

Jennifer Cochran, an attorney who represented Naylor, explains on her blog that the Austin appeals court’s decision doesn’t address the constitutional issues related to gay divorce:

The Appellate Court dismissed the appeal for “want of jurisdiction” finding that the State was not a party of record and thus lacked standing to appeal.

So what’s this mean? Well this particular divorce was granted and upheld by the appellate court because the AG intervened after the divorce was granted orally by Judge Jenkins and because neither party raised constitutional challenges to the Family Code or the Texas Constitution.  If either party had, the appellate court would have most likely found that the AG did have standing and would have addressed the constitutional arguments in addition to the procedural ones.  So, we will leave the constitutional challenge for another day (or case).

Abbott’s office could now drop its appeal, request that the entire 3rd District Court of Appeals hear the case, or appeal the three-judge panel’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

According to the Texas Tribune, Lauren Bean, a spokeswoman for Abbott’s office, said the decision “undermines unambiguous Texas law.”

“The Texas Constitution and statutes are clear: only the union of a man and a woman can be treated as a marriage in Texas,” she said, adding, “The Office of the Attorney General will weigh all options to ensure that the will of Texas voters and their elected representatives is upheld.”

More to come …

—  John Wright

Appeals court says no to gay divorce

A state appeals court in Dallas has ruled that two gay men who were married in Massachusetts cannot obtain a divorce in Texas.

The ruling came from the 5th District Court of Appeals on Tuesday in the case, In the Matter of the Marriage of J.B. and H.B.

J.B. and H.B. married in Massachusetts in 2006 and filed for a divorce in Texas in January 2009 after moving here. Massachusetts, which has allowed same-sex marriage since 2004, has a residency requirement for divorce.

In October of last year, District Judge Tena Callahan ruled that J.B. and H.B. could obtain a divorce in Texas, saying that the state’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Callahan’s decision was immediately appealed by Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who argued that same-sex couples cannot divorce in Texas because the state doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. An all-Republican, three-judge panel of the appeals court heard oral arguments in the case in April.

“We hold that Texas district courts do not have the subject-matter jurisdiction to hear a same-sex divorce case,” the panel said in Tuesday’s ruling. “Texas’s laws compelling this result do not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Pete Schulte, a gay Dallas attorney who serves as co-counsel for J.B. in the case, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“We respectfully disagree with the justices’ opinion,” Schulte said. “However, we respect the process and are evaluating our options moving forward.”

Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the AG’s office, said in a statement: “Today’s Court of Appeals decision overruled the District Court’s improper ruling, confirmed the constitutionality of Texas’ traditional definition of marriage and correctly found that Texas courts lack the legal authority to grant divorces to same-sex couples. Because the Constitution and laws of the State of Texas define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the Court correctly ruled that Texas courts do not have authority to grant a same-sex divorce. Further, the Court rejected the parties constitutional challenge and instead ruled that Texas’ definition of marriage is entirely consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”

Many expect case the case will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

To view the full ruling, click on this link: Gay.Divorce

—  John Wright