698 N.W.2d 858 (Iowa 2005), 03-1982, Alons v. Iowa Dist. Court for Woodbury County

Docket Nº:03-1982.
Citation:698 N.W.2d 858
Party Name:Dwayne ALONS, Carmine Boal, Nancy Boettger, Danny Carroll, Betty DeBoef, Steve King, Neal Schuerer, Matthew Wentz and Church of Christ of Le Mars, Plaintiffs, v. IOWA DISTRICT COURT FOR WOODBURY COUNTY, Defendant.
Case Date:June 17, 2005
Court:Supreme Court of Iowa

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698 N.W.2d 858 (Iowa 2005)

Dwayne ALONS, Carmine Boal, Nancy Boettger, Danny Carroll, Betty DeBoef, Steve King, Neal Schuerer, Matthew Wentz and Church of Christ of Le Mars, Plaintiffs,



No. 03-1982.

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 17, 2005

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Kevin H. Theriot and Elizabeth Murray, Olathe, KS, for Alliance Defense Fund, and Timm W. Reid, Pleasant Hill, for Iowa Liberty and Justice Center, for plaintiffs.

Camilla B. Taylor, Chicago, IL, for amicus curiae Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sharon K. Malheiro of Davis, Brown, Koehn, Shors & Roberts, P.C., Des Moines, for amicus curiae Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community Center of Central Iowa, Catherine Levine and Randall C. Wilson, Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa Civil Liberties Union, and John A. Knight, Chicago, IL, for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.

LAVORATO, Chief Justice.

In this case, the district court entered a decree dissolving a Vermont civil union. The plaintiffs, who were not parties in the proceedings before the district court, have challenged that decree by filing an original certiorari proceeding in this court. The issue before us is not whether the district court was correct or incorrect in dissolving the Vermont civil union. Rather, the issue is whether these plaintiffs, as nonparties in the action before the district court, have a right to challenge the decree. We conclude they do not have such a right and for that reason we annul the writ of certiorari that we previously granted. Writ annulled.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On August 1, 2003, Kimberly Jean Brown filed a petition for dissolution of marriage in which Jennifer Sue Perez was named as the respondent. The petition alleged that the parties were married on March 25, 2002 in Bolton, Vermont and requested that the court enter a decree dissolving their marriage.

On November 14 the parties filed a stipulation regarding their assets and debts. On the same day, the district court entered a decree purporting to dissolve the parties' marriage and incorporating the stipulation as part of the decree.

On December 15 the plaintiffs filed with this court a petition for writ of certiorari naming as defendant, "Judge of the Iowa District Court for Woodbury County." See generally Iowa R.App. P. 6.301 (allowing the filing of a petition for writ of certiorari with the supreme court). The plaintiffs include state senators (Nancy Boettger and Neal Schuerer), state representatives (Dwayne Alons, Carmine Boal, Danny Carroll, and Betty DeBoef), a congressman (Steve King), a pastor (Matthew Wentz), and a church (Church of Christ of Le Mars).

The plaintiffs alleged that the district court did not have authority to enter a dissolution of marriage decree in the matter earlier mentioned. In support of this allegation, the plaintiffs alleged the following. Under Iowa law only a marriage between a male and female is valid and therefore Iowa law does not recognize a marriage between same-sex couples. The petitioner and respondent in the dissolution action were not married as alleged in the petition, but rather they entered into a civil union. Vermont law defines marriage as the legally recognized union of one man and one woman. The petitioner and respondent entered into a civil union. Under Vermont law a civil union requires that the parties be of the same sex and therefore excluded from the marriage laws of Vermont. There exists no statutory authority

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for the district court to dissolve a civil union.

On December 24 the district court entered an amended decree. The court noted that the parties entered into a civil union under Vermont law. The court also noted that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction to grant a dissolution of marriage from a Vermont civil union under Iowa Code chapter 598. Invoking general equitable subject matter jurisdiction to declare the status and rights of the parties, the court vacated in part the decree of dissolution of marriage. The court then granted the following equitable relief: terminating the Vermont civil union, freeing the parties of any obligations incident to that union, declaring that the parties are single individuals with all rights of unmarried persons, and approving and incorporating into the amended decree those portions of the parties' stipulation regarding the division of property and debts.

On the same day, an order of this court asked the parties in this certiorari action to address what effect, if any, the amended decree had on the certiorari action. On January 9, 2004, the plaintiffs responded that the amended decree did not "repair the original jurisdictional infirmity" because equity jurisdiction did not grant the district court authority to recognize a civil union. The plaintiffs further maintained that the record contained no testimony, evidence, or allegation in the dissolution petition that a Vermont civil union actually existed. Finally, the plaintiffs stated that they were also relying on the Defense of Marriage Act found in 1 U.S.C. § 7 and 28 U.S.C. § 1738C (2003).

On February 3 we granted the petition for writ of certiorari and ordered the parties to brief the issue of the plaintiffs' standing to bring the certiorari action. On April 19 a number of entities filed a motion for permission to file an amicus brief on the issue of the plaintiffs' lack of standing. Those entities include the following: Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community Center of Central Iowa; Iowa Civil Liberties Union; and American Civil Liberties Union Foundation [hereinafter amicus]. On May 19 we granted that motion.

II. Issue.

The decisive issue is whether the plaintiffs have standing to seek a writ of certiorari challenging the district court's amended decree.

III. Scope of Review.

"In an original certiorari proceeding, our review is for errors at law." Sorci v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 671 N.W.2d 482, 488 (Iowa 2003). The principles for reviewing a certiorari action have been recently stated as follows:

"A writ of certiorari lies where a lower board, tribunal, or court has exceeded its jurisdiction or otherwise has acted illegally. For this reason, this court 'may examine only the jurisdiction of the district court and the legality of its actions.' 'Illegality exists when the court's findings lack substantial evidentiary support, or when the court has not properly applied the law.' "

Pfister v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 688 N.W.2d 790, 794 (Iowa 2004) (citations omitted).

IV. Standing.

A. Applicable Iowa law.

In Citizens for Responsible Choices v. City of Shenandoah, we said that standing to sue means " 'a party must have "sufficient stake in an otherwise justiciable controversy to obtain judicial resolution of that controversy." ' " 686 N.W.2d 470, 475 (Iowa 2004) (citations omitted);

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accord Sanchez v. State, 692 N.W.2d 812, 821 (Iowa 2005). As far as Iowa law is concerned, this means "that a complaining party must (1) have a specific personal or legal interest in the litigation and (2) be injuriously affected." Id. Having a legal interest in the litigation and being injuriously affected are separate requirements for standing. Id.

Standing is a doctrine courts employ to

refuse to determine the merits of a legal controversy irrespective of its correctness, where the party advancing it is not properly situated to prosecute the action. When standing is put in issue, the question is whether the person whose standing is challenged is a proper party to request an adjudication of the issue and not whether the controversy is otherwise justiciable, or whether, on the merits, the plaintiff has a legally protected interest that the defendant's action has invaded.

59 Am. Jur. 2d Parties § 36, at 442 (2002) (footnotes omitted); see also Hawkeye Bancorporation v. Iowa Coll. Aid Comm'n, 360 N.W.2d 798, 802 (Iowa 1985) ("standing is a self-imposed rule of restraint").

In short, the focus is on the party, not on the claim. 13 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3531, at 339 (1984) [hereinafter Wright]. Even if the claim could be meritorious, the court will not hear the claim if the party bringing it lacks standing. See Citizens, 686 N.W.2d at 475 ("Whether litigants have standing does not depend on the legal merit of their claims, but rather whether, if the wrong alleged produces a legally cognizable injury, they are among those who have sustained it.").

It has been said that "[s]tanding is related to the doctrine that prohibits advisory opinions because the latter requires the court to dispose of only those issues that affect the rights of the parties present." 59 Am. Jur. 2d Parties § 35, at 441 (2002).

This court has required standing in certiorari actions. In State v. West, the court stated the requirement this way:

Certiorari, which is an extraordinary remedy, is available to all persons who show a substantial interest in the activity challenged. Generally, only a party to an action may obtain the writ. An exception exists, however, when the public is concerned with the subject matter of the action, in which case anyone interested may petition. In order for persons who are not parties to assert a claim, they must prove that they have been injured in a special manner, different from that of the public generally.

320 N.W.2d 570, 573 (Iowa 1982) (citations omitted); accord Williamson v. Kelley, 271 N.W.2d 727, 729 (Iowa 1978); Hohl v. Bd. of Educ., 250 Iowa 502, 509, 94 N.W.2d 787, 791...

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