Articles Posted in Same-Sex Couples

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The United States Supreme Court recently handed down it’s decision in the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) case, and ruled that the Federal government cannot deny the status of married, when applying federal laws and programs to same-sex couples legally married under the laws of their state. You can find the full text of the decision at this link United States v. Windsor. The decision does not rule on the right of a state to ban same-sex marriage and is based on the historical rights of the states to define marriage, but many parts of the decision are relevant to a state like Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage. The decision also brings to the fore-front the issue of a state’s refusing to recognize marriages from another state.

Florida Statues Section 741.04 prohibits issuance of a marriage license for same-sex couples. Section 741.212 defines marriage as between a man and a women, and also provides that a same-sex marriage entered into in another state or any other jurisdiction is not recognized and is not given any effect in Florida.

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Continued from Part I. The Court ruled in T.M.H. v. D.M.T, that Florida’s statute prohibiting gay or lesbian prospective parents from adopting a child, does not operate to take away the maternal rights of a biological or birth mother. That seems like a common sense ruling, like the ruling that TMH was clearly not a “donor”, but both were major issues in the case. There was a dissenting Judge in the case who wrote an opinion stating that under Florida law, TMH — the biological mother, had lost her rights as a parent.

Another important issue in the case was whether TMH had waived her rights as a parent, by signing a waiver form at the reproductive clinic — the form basically provided that TMH waived any rights she might have as a parent regarding any child resulting from her donation of her ova. The court ruled that this waiver form did not have the effect of waiving TMH’s maternal rights, because it was clear that that was not the intention or agreement of the parties, and that TMH was not a donor nor simply donating her eggs. The court relied on and cited cases from other states that had reached the same conclusions when dealing with similar waiver forms. So, this is Florida law regarding the waiver form, at least in this Circuit currently. It is always possible that a different decision will be reached by this court or another parallel or higher court in the future. There is also always a chance Florida’s legislature will attempt to craft a statute that will make these form waivers in a reproductive clinic binding and effective against parents like TMH, in a way that perhaps would successively survive a court challenge to the constitutionality of the statute.

The point here, is that there is reason to be cautious about signing these kinds of waivers, and to read carefully other kinds of forms that are presented to you in a doctor’s office, hospital or other location. Many if not most times, when you sign a document, it is binding. There are some forms a doctor’s office or hospital might require you to sign as a condition to providing treatment, but there are some forms you may have the option of not signing, or where you can negotiate regarding what’s included or added to the form. I fully believe that the staff at medical offices and hospitals have the patients’ welfare and best interests as their first priority, and that is true of the institutions as well, but at the same time I’m also fairly sure, at least from my own experiences with medical situations with family, that some of the forms (written by attorneys) are designed with the institution’s best interests in mind. In a situation like TMH and DMT’s, where the doctor is helping the couple conceive a child, perhaps the office would go along with the prospective parents writing on the form that the biological parent is not waiving her rights and that the couple intend to raise the child together, or simply not require the waiver.

The “concurring” opinion in the TMH case raised an additional interesting and important issue, based on the decision in Florida Department of Children & Families v. Adoption of X.X.G., 45 So. 3d 79 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010), which ruled that Florida’s statute prohibiting adoption by a gay or lesbian prospective parent violates the equal protection clause of Florida’s Constitution, and is unconstitutional. Judge Monaco in his concurring opinion in TMH observed that if TMH and DMT were not a same-sex couple, the court would probably have viewed them as being able to fall under a specific provision in Florida Statutes 742.14, which allows a “commissioning couple” to donate sperm/ova without waving parental rights. The statute, however, defining the term identifies a “commissioning couple” as an intended mother and father. If it is unconstitutional to prohibit a gay or lesbian prospective parent from adopting a child, it seems it would violate the notion of equal protection as well to not allow a same-sex couple to be treated as a commissioning couple (a quick review of the case law interpreting F.S. 742.14 indicates that heterosexual unmarried partners can be treated as a commissioning couple). The ruling in Adoption of X.X.G. was based on the Court’s determining that there was no rational basis or reason for prohibiting gay or lesbian prospective parents from adopting. The same reasoning should apply in determining whether there is a rational basis for prohibiting a same sex couple from seeking to have a child through the reproductive options available to other couples.

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The Fifth District Court of Appeals in Florida – the appeals court covering the north/central part of the State, recently decided T.M.H. v. D.M.T, 79 So. 3d 787 (Fla. 5th D.C.A., December 23, 2011), a case dealing with the parental rights of lesbian partners. In this case the partners decided to have a child together – one partner, TMH’s egg was fertilized and implanted by in-vitro fertilization in DMT. The child was born in 2004; the parties lived together for approximately 2 ½ years and raised their child together, and separated in 2006, but continued co-parenting for another 1 ½ years. The parents’ relationship deteriorated, and DMT moved out of the country and cut off TMH’s contact with the child. The Court described the case as a case of “first impression”, i.e. an issue that had not been decided yet by Florida’s appellate courts, and ruled that both parents – both the birth mother and biological mother, had constitutionally protected rights as parents.

The key issue in the TMH case involved the rights of the “biological” mother — TMH, who was not the birth mother, because the embryo was implanted in DMT who gave birth to the child. DMT, through her attorney, argued that a Florida Statute (F.S. 742.14) that provides for an egg or sperm donor losing or waiving their maternal or paternal rights, applied to TMH and meant that as an egg “donor” she had waived and lost her rights as a parent. The Court decided that TMH was not a “donor” — that it was not a situation where TMH had given away her ova so that another mother or couple could have and raise a child. The Court found that the intention of TMH and DMT, their agreement, was to have and raise a child together, and that that is what they had done for many years before they had a falling out.

The Court went on to make several significant rulings in the case, as part of its decision. First, that the right to procreate and parent your child is a fundamental, constitutionally protected right. The court applied this right to decide the case, thus holding that lesbian parents’ rights are constitutionally protected, and specifically stated that applying F.S. 742.14 to deny TMH’s maternal rights would violate her constitutional rights, including her right to equal protection under the law. There are some technical constitutional law issues that make up the constitutional law ruling, but this the bottom line of the Court’s decision.

One thing to note, and the reason I mention above the District the case came from, is that a decision of a District Court of Appeals is only “binding” on the circuit courts in the counties covered by that District. The circuit courts are the “trial” courts that hear your family law case. When you go before a family court judge for a hearing or trial – the judge you’ll see is a Circuit Court Judge. The website for the Florida Courts list the counties covered by each District Court of Appeal. So for example, in a case in the future, the Fourth District Court of Appeal covering Broward and Palm Beach Counties could decide the issue addressed in TMH v DMT differently than the Fifth DCA did. The Fifth DCA in the TMC decision, “certified” the issue in the case, i.e. sent the case up to the Florida Supreme Court, as a matter of great public importance. The parties are currently filing briefs before the Florida Supreme Court. This post will be continued in Part II.