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Massachusetts Supreme Court rules Vermont civil union equivalent to marriage

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that an individual who is party to a Vermont civil union must first dissolve that civil union before entering into a marriage with a different person in Massachusetts. The case concerns Richard Elia, who in 2005 discovered in the middle of his pending divorce that his spouse Todd Elia-Warnken had a preexisting spousal relationship in the form of a Vermont civil union with another man. Elia filed a motion to dismiss the divorce action on the grounds that he and Mr. Elia-Warnken had never been legally married. The Probate and Family Court [official website] granted the motion to dismiss and the SJC took the case on direct appellate review:

We follow "the general rule that the validity of a marriage is governed by the law of the State where the marriage is contracted." ... As such, we ordinarily extend recognition of out-of-State marriages under principles of comity, even if such marriages would be prohibited here, unless the marriage violated Massachusetts public policy, including polygamy, consanguinity and affinity. ... Here, the initial question is whether we should extend recognition of the plaintiff's civil union in the same manner as we would an out-of-State marriage under principles of comity.
Using "the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others" as its marriage definition, the SJC found that a Vermont civil union is the functional equivalent of a marriage, and therefore Elia's Massachusetts marriage to Elia-Warnken is void ab initio. The ruling was hailed as a victory by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) [advocacy website; press release], which is representing Elia before the SJC.

Earlier this week Massachusetts officials filed documents [JURIST report] in the US Supreme Court [official website] challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text; JURIST news archive]. Attorney General Martha Coakley argued in her brief [text, PDF] that Section 3 of DOMA violates the Tenth Amendment as well as the Spending Clause (Article I, Section 8) [Cornell LII backgrounders]. On the same day, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman [official website] filed an amicus brief with the Court, supporting the case of an elderly New York woman who last week petitioned the Court to expedite her DOMA challenge [JURIST reports], which is currently pending appeal in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website].

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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