122 P.3d 781 (Alaska 2005), S-10459, Alaska Civil Liberties Union v. State

Docket Nº:S-10459.
Citation:122 P.3d 781
Opinion Judge:EASTAUGH, Justice.
Party Name:ALASKA CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, Dan Carter and Al Incontro, Lin Davis and Maureen Longworth, Shirley Dean and Carla Timpone, Darla Madden and Karen Wood, Aimee Olejasz and Fabienne Peter-Contesse, Karen Sturnick and Elizabeth Andrews, Theresa Tavel and Karen Walter, Corin Whittemore and Gani Ruthellen, and Estra Bensussen and Carol Rose Gackowski, Ap
Attorney:Allison E. Mendel, Mendel & Associates, Anchorage, Kenneth Y. Choe, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, New York City, New York, and Tobias B. Wolff, Davis, California, for Appellants. John B. Gaguine, Assistant Attorney General, and Bruce M. Botelho, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee...
Judge Panel:Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, BRYNER, and CARPENETI, Justices.
Case Date:October 28, 2005
Court:Supreme Court of Alaska
 
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122 P.3d 781 (Alaska 2005)

ALASKA CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION, Dan Carter and Al Incontro, Lin Davis and Maureen Longworth, Shirley Dean and Carla Timpone, Darla Madden and Karen Wood, Aimee Olejasz and Fabienne Peter-Contesse, Karen Sturnick and Elizabeth Andrews, Theresa Tavel and Karen Walter, Corin Whittemore and Gani Ruthellen, and Estra Bensussen and Carol Rose Gackowski, Appellants,

v.

STATE of Alaska and Municipality of Anchorage, Appellees.

No. S-10459.

Supreme Court of Alaska

October 28, 2005

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Allison E. Mendel, Mendel & Associates, Anchorage, Kenneth Y. Choe, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, New York City,

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New York, and Tobias B. Wolff, Davis, California, for Appellants.

John B. Gaguine, Assistant Attorney General, and Bruce M. Botelho, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee State of Alaska.

Neil T. O'Donnell, Atkinson, Conway & Gagnon, Anchorage, for Appellee Municipality of Anchorage.

James M. Gorski, Hughes, Thorsness, Gantz, Powell, Huddleston & Bauman LLC, Anchorage, for Amicus Curiae The Alaska Catholic Conference.

Rebecca L. Maxey, Law Offices of Rebecca L. Maxey, L.L.C., Anchorage, and Jennifer Middleton, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., New York City, New York, for Amicus Curiae Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.

Kevin G. Clarkson, Brena, Bell & Clarkson, P.C., Anchorage, for Amici Curiae North Star Civil Rights Defense Fund, Inc. and Marriage Law Project.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, BRYNER, and CARPENETI, Justices.

OPINION

EASTAUGH, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

The State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage offer valuable benefits to their employees' spouses that they do not offer to their unmarried employees' domestic partners. Essentially all opposite-sex adult couples may marry and thus become eligible for these benefits. But no same-sex couple can ever become eligible for these benefits because same-sex couples may not marry in Alaska. 1 The spousal limitations in the benefits programs therefore affect public employees with same-sex domestic partners differently than public employees who are married. This case requires us to determine if it is reasonable to pay public employees who are in committed domestic relationships with same-sex partners less in terms of employee benefits than their co-workers who are married. In making this determination, we must decide whether the spousal limitations in the benefits programs violate the rights of public employees with same-sex domestic partners to "equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law." 2

The Alaska Constitution dictates the answer to that constitutional question. Irrelevant to our analysis must be personal, moral, or religious beliefs--held deeply by many--about whether persons should enter into intimate same-sex relationships or whether same-sex domestic partners should be permitted to marry. It is the duty of courts "to define the liberty of all, not to mandate [their] own moral code." 3 Our duty here is to decide whether the eligibility restrictions satisfy established standards for resolving equal protection challenges to governmental action.

We do not need to decide whether heightened scrutiny should be applied here because the benefits programs cannot withstand minimum scrutiny. Although the governmental objectives are presumably legitimate, the difference in treatment is not substantially related to those objectives. We accordingly hold that the spousal limitations are unconstitutional as applied to public employees with same-sex domestic partners, and we vacate the judgment below. We ask the parties to file supplemental memoranda addressing the issue of remedy.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

The State of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage offer health insurance and other employment benefits to the spouses of their employees. 4 These benefits are financially

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valuable to employees and their spouses. Only couples who are married are eligible to receive these benefits; unmarried couples are not eligible. The state and the municipality have offered some form of these employment benefits since 1955 and at least 1985, respectively.

The Alaska Civil Liberties Union and eighteen individuals who alleged that they comprised nine lesbian or gay couples (collectively, the "plaintiffs") filed suit against the state and the municipality in 1999, complaining that these benefits programs violated their right to equal protection under the Alaska Constitution. They alleged that at least one member of each same-sex couple was an employee or retiree of the state or the municipality, that the eighteen individual plaintiffs were involved in "intimate, committed, loving" long-term relationships with same-sex domestic partners, and that, as gay and lesbian couples, they are excluded by state law from the institution of marriage. Members of eight of the couples asserted in affidavits that they are in "committed relationships." 5 Their amended complaint alleged that because they are prohibited from marrying each other by Alaska Constitution article I, section 25, they are ineligible for the employment benefits the defendants provide to married couples, resulting in a denial of the individual plaintiffs' right to equal protection.

Article I, section 25 was adopted by Alaska voters in 1998. Commonly known as the Marriage Amendment, it provides: "To be valid or recognized in this State, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman." It effectively prohibits marriage in Alaska between persons of the same sex. 6 The plaintiff employees consequently cannot enter into the formal relationship--marriage--that the benefits programs require if the employees are to confer these benefits on their domestic partners.

Put another way, the plaintiff employees and their same-sex partners are absolutely precluded from becoming eligible for these benefits. Although all opposite-sex couples who are unmarried are also ineligible for these employment benefits, by marrying they can change the status that makes them ineligible.

The plaintiffs did not challenge the Marriage Amendment in the superior court (nor do they on appeal). Instead, their amended complaint asked the superior court to declare that denying employment benefits to same-sex domestic partners violates, among other things, article I, section 1 of the Alaska Constitution, which states in part: "This constitution is dedicated to the principle[] ... that all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law."

All parties moved for summary judgment. The superior court denied the plaintiffs' motion and granted the defendants' motion. The court first rejected plaintiffs' assertion

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that it was necessary to apply heightened scrutiny in considering their equal protection challenge; the court reasoned that heightened scrutiny was unwarranted because the state and the municipality were discriminating between married and unmarried employees, not between opposite-sex and same-sex couples. The court also determined that the only right at issue was a right to employee benefits, which it ruled was not a fundamental right. Because the court found that no suspect class or fundamental right was involved, it applied the lowest level of scrutiny to the governmental action. The court ruled that the defendants had a legitimate interest in reducing costs, increasing administrative efficiency, and promoting marriage. It then ruled that granting benefits only to spouses of married employees bore a fair and substantial relationship to those interests.

The plaintiffs appealed. Briefing on their appeal was completed and oral argument took place Before the United States Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas. 7 With our permission, the parties filed supplemental briefs discussing Lawrence.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

We review a grant or denial of summary judgment de novo. 8 Summary judgment is only appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 9 Deciding the applicable standard of scrutiny in an equal protection challenge to an allegedly discriminatory statute presents a question of law. 10 Likewise, identifying the nature of the challenger's interest and assessing the importance of the governmental interest and the fit between that interest and the means chosen to advance it, present questions of law. 11 We will apply our independent judgment to questions of law and adopt the rule of law most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy. 12 We apply our independent judgment when interpreting constitutional provisions or statutes. 13 A constitutional challenge to a statute must overcome a presumption of constitutionality. 14

B. Effect of the Marriage Amendment on Plaintiffs' Equal Protection Arguments

The plaintiffs, in challenging the spousal limitations in the benefits programs, rely on article I, section 1 of the Alaska Constitution, which guarantees the right to equal treatment. It states that "all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law." 15 Often referred to as the "equal protection clause, " this clause actually guarantees not only equal "protection, " but also equal "rights" and "opportunities" under the law. 16

But Alaska Constitution article I, section 25, the Marriage Amendment, states

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that "[t]o be valid or recognized in this State, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman." It effectively prohibits same-sex domestic partners from marrying in Alaska and denies recognition in Alaska to foreign marriages...

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