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Latta v. Otter

United States District Court, D. Idaho

May 13, 2014

C.L. " BUTCH" OTTER, as Governor of the State of Idaho, in his official capacity, and CHRISTOPHER RICH, as Recorder of Ada County, Idaho, in his official capacity, Defendants, and STATE OF IDAHO, Defendant-Intervenor

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For Susan Latta, Traci Ehlers, Lori Watsen, Sharene Watsen, Shelia Robertson, Andrea Altmayer, Amber Beierle, Plaintiffs: Deborah A Ferguson, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Law Office of Deborah A. Ferguson, PLLC, Boise, ID; Christopher F Stoll, Shannon Minter, PRO HAC VICE, National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco, CA; Craig Durham, Durham Law Office, PLLC, Boise, ID.

For Rachael Robertson, Plaintiff: Craig Durham, LEAD ATTORNEY, Durham Law Office, PLLC, Boise, ID; Deborah A Ferguson, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Law Office of Deborah A. Ferguson, PLLC, Boise, ID; Christopher F Stoll, Shannon Minter, PRO HAC VICE, National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco, CA.

For Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter, as Governor of the State of Idaho, in his offical capacity, Defendant: Thomas C. Perry, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the Governor, Boise, ID; Cally Ann Younger, Governor's Office, Boise, ID.

For Christopher Rich, as Recorder of Ada County, Idaho, in his offical capacity, Defendant: Clay R Smith, Steven Lamar Olsen, LEAD ATTORNEYS, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL, Boise, ID; W Scott Zanzig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the Idaho Attorney General, Civil Litigation, Boise, ID.

For State of Idaho, Intervenor Defendant: Clay R Smith, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL, Boise, ID; W Scott Zanzig, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the Idaho Attorney General, Civil Litigation, Boise, ID.

For Cornerstone Family Council of Idaho, Amicus: Matthew C Williams, LEAD ATTORNEY, Williams Law Office, Cascade, ID; Kenneth J Connelly, PRO HAC VICE, Alliance Defending Freedom, Scottsdale, AZ.

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It is precisely because the issue raised by this case touches the heart of what makes individuals what they are that we should be especially sensitive to the rights of those whose choices upset the majority.
-- The Honorable Harry Blackmun [1]

This case asks a basic and enduring question about the essence of American government: Whether the will of the majority, based as it often is on sincere beliefs and democratic consensus, may trump the rights of a minority. Plaintiffs are two same-sex couples who desire to marry in Idaho and two same-sex couples who legally married in other states and wish to have their marriages recognized in Idaho. Under the Constitution and laws of the State of Idaho (Idaho's Marriage Laws), marriage between a man and a woman is the only legally recognized domestic union. Idaho effectively prohibits same-sex marriage and nullifies same-sex marriages legally celebrated in other states. Plaintiffs request the Court declare these laws unconstitutional and enjoin Idaho from enforcing them, which would allow the Unmarried Plaintiffs to marry and the Married Plaintiffs to be legally recognized as married in the state they consider home.

Although 17 states legally recognize same-sex marriages,[2] Idaho is one of many states that has chosen the opposite course. Like courts presiding over similar cases across the country, the Court must examine whether Idaho's chosen course is constitutional.

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Significantly, the Supreme Court of the United States recently held that the federal government cannot constitutionally define marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. United States v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675, 186 L.Ed.2d 808 (2013). Writing for the majority in Windsor, Justice Kennedy reasoned the " purpose and effect" of the federal man-woman marriage definition was " to disparage and injure" legally married same-sex couples in derogation of the liberty, due process, and equal protection guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Id. at 2696. Here, the Court considers a related but distinct question: Do Idaho's Marriage Laws deny Plaintiffs the due process or equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution?

After careful consideration, the Court finds Idaho's Marriage Laws unconstitutional. This conclusion reaffirms a longstanding maxim underlying our system of government-- a state's broad authority to regulate matters of state concern does not include the power to violate an individual's protected constitutional rights. See, e.g., id. at 2691 (" State laws defining and regulating marriage, of course, must respect the constitutional rights of persons. . . ." ). Idaho's Marriage Laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens the fundamental right to marry and relegate their families to a stigmatized, second-class status without sufficient reason for doing so. These laws do not withstand any applicable level of constitutional scrutiny.


Marriage works a fundamental change on the lives of all who experience it. The decision to marry is both a deeply personal expression of love and a public declaration of commitment. For many, marriage is also a profoundly important religious institution, cementing and celebrating a life-long union enriched by enduring traditions. These traditions vary from faith to faith, but when most people think of marriage they think of the ceremony--the wedding--with all of the hope and joy those pivotal moments entail. Compared to the immense personal and spiritual significance of marriage as a ceremonial rite, the civil institution of marriage is much more prosaic.

A. Idaho's Marriage Laws

A series of licensing statutes govern civil marriage in Idaho. As far as the State is concerned, marriage is a contract evidenced by a State-issued license and a solemnization. Idaho Code § 32-201(1). The solemnization itself can be secular or religious, and the officiant need not be an ordained minister. Id. § § 32-303 to -304. Regardless of their preferred method of solemnization, opposite-sex couples are eligible for a marriage license so long as they meet certain minimal requirements. See id. § § 32-202 (age limitations); -205, -206 (consanguinity limitations); -207 (prohibition of polygamous marriages).

A multitude of legal benefits and responsibilities flow from a valid civil marriage contract. These marital benefits include the right to be recognized as a spouse when petitioning to adopt a child born to a spouse, see id. § § 16-1503, -1506; have access to an ill spouse at the hospital and to make medical decisions for an ill or incapacitated spouse without a written power of attorney, see id. § 39-4504; file a joint state income tax return as a married couple, see id. § 63-3031; inherit a share of the estate of a spouse who dies without a will, see id. § 15-2-102; preclude a spouse from testifying in a court proceeding about confidential communications made during the marriage, see id. § 9-203;

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and jointly own community property with right of survivorship, see id. § 15-6-401. These incidents of marriage touch every aspect of a person's life. From the deathbed to the tax form, property rights to parental rights, the witness stand to the probate court, the legal status of " spouse" provides unique and undeniably important protections. Opposite-sex married couples enjoy many of these benefits by automatic operation of law.

A couple need not marry in Idaho to enjoy these benefits, as Idaho generally follows the so-called " place of celebration rule." See Morrison v. Sunshine Mining Co., 64 Idaho 6, 127 P.2d 766, 769 (Idaho 1942) (" Having assumed and entered into the marital relation with appellant in Montana, the status thus established followed Morrison to Idaho and could not be shed like a garment on entering this state." ). Under this longstanding rule, a marriage contracted outside Idaho will be valid in Idaho if the marriage is valid where contracted. See Idaho Code § 32-209. That is, unless the marriage is between two persons of the same sex. Id.

Same-sex couples are categorically prohibited from obtaining a marriage license in Idaho or from having their otherwise valid out-of-state marriages recognized in Idaho. But for the fact they are same-sex couples, Plaintiffs would either be recognized as married or be eligible to marry.

Plaintiffs challenge three specific provisions of Idaho law.[3] First, Idaho Code § 32-201 defines marriage as " a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman, to which the consent of the parties capable of making it is necessary." Id. § 32-201(1). This statute prohibits same-sex marriage regardless of whether a couple otherwise qualifies for a marriage license.

Second, Idaho Code § 32-209 provides the mechanism by which Idaho recognizes the legal validity of marriages contracted in other states or countries. The statute provides:

All marriages contracted without this state, which would be valid by the laws of the state or country in which the same were contracted, are valid in this state, unless they violate the public policy of this state. Marriages that violate the public policy of this state include, but are not limited to, same-sex marriages, and marriages entered into under the laws of another state or country with the intent to evade the prohibitions of the marriage laws of this state.

Id. § 32-209. This statute creates a two-tiered system for out-of-state marriages. While opposite-sex couples benefit from the place of celebration rule, married same-sex couples shed their marital status upon entering Idaho. Although the State's non-recognition policy is not limited to same-sex marriages and marriages contracted with the intent to evade Idaho law, the statute lists no other form of marriage specifically.

Third, the Idaho Constitution effectively bans legal recognition of same-sex unions. In November of 2006, a majority of Idaho's electorate voted to add the following language to the Idaho Constitution: " A marriage

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between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state." Idaho Const. Art. III, § 28.

This provision has the combined legal effect of the two statutes referenced above. But, by virtue of its place in the Idaho Constitution, the amendment imposes powerful restraints on Idaho's Legislature and Judiciary. The provision effectively precludes a state court from finding that Idaho law requires the State to recognize any type of same-sex union. And it precludes every legislative body in Idaho from recognizing civil unions or any other same-sex relationship approximating marriage. Absent a superseding constitutional amendment, no branch of state government may authorize or recognize the marriage of two persons of the same sex. Thus, Idaho's Marriage Laws prevent same-sex couples, whether married or unmarried, from obtaining the marital status and benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples.

B. The Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs are four same-sex couples. The Married Plaintiffs, Susan Latta and Traci Ehlers, and Lori Watsen and Sharene Watsen, legally married in other states and wish to have their marriages recognized in Idaho. The Unmarried Plaintiffs, Shelia Robertson and Andrea Altmayer, and Amber Beierle and Rachael Robertson, desire to be married in Idaho, but the County Recorder of Ada County, Defendant Rich, denied their marriage license applications. The following undisputed facts are contained in the pleadings and in Plaintiffs' declarations.

1. Susan Latta and Traci Ehlers

Susan Latta has lived in Boise for 22 years. Traci Ehlers has resided in Idaho's Treasure Valley for 38 years. Latta is a professional artist and adjunct professor at Boise State University, and Ehlers owns a small business in Boise. They met at a book club and began dating in 2003. Ehlers proposed to Latta in 2004, and, in 2006, the couple celebrated " a meaningful but not legally binding wedding ceremony in Boise." (Latta Dec. ¶ 11, Dkt. 48.) In 2008, the couple legally married in California soon after that state began allowing same-sex marriages. Neither Latta nor Ehlers had been married before, but they decided to marry because they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Although Ehlers never thought she would have children, she is now step-mother to Latta's children and step-grandmother to Latta's grandchildren.

Both Latta and Ehlers attest that Idaho's refusal to recognize their marriage complicates and demeans their lives. They worry about the ramifications of aging without a legally recognized marriage, a reality that implicates taxes, inheritance, Social Security benefits, hospital visitation rights, and medical decision-making. Although they can file a " married" tax return for federal purposes, Idaho law requires them to file " single" state tax returns. Latta and Ehlers plan to seek professional assistance to prepare their state tax returns. The couple also is unsure about the status of property they acquired during their marriage because a quitclaim deed purporting to grant each of them title to community property with right of survivorship may not be enforceable absent a legally recognized marriage. Ehlers explains, " it is painful that the state we love, the place that we have made our home, where we vote and pay taxes, where we have our businesses, where we participate, and volunteer, and donate, treats us as second-class citizens." (Ehlers Dec. ¶ 18, Dkt. 49.)

2. Lori Watsen and Sharene Watsen

Lori and Sharene Watsen reside in Boise, where Sharene works as a physician

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assistant and Lori works as a social worker. Friends introduced the Watsens in 2009, and the two have been together as a couple since their first date. In 2011, the couple married in a small legal ceremony in New York. They held a larger celebration of their marriage at their church in Boise during the summer of 2012. The Watsens both describe their marriage as an important symbol of their love for and commitment to each other, not least because they both grew up in deeply religious families that value the institution greatly.

Also in 2012, the Watsens decided to start a family. Their son was conceived by artificial insemination in September 2012, and Sharene gave birth in May 2013. Although they requested that Lori be listed as their son's parent, his birth certificate lists only Sharene. In the summer of 2013, the Watsens hired an attorney to assist Lori's adoption of their son. An Ada County magistrate judge dismissed the adoption petition and, despite their valid New York marriage, deemed Lori to be Sharene's unmarried " cohabitating, committed partner" without legal standing to adopt Sharene's son. (S. Watsen Dec. Ex. C., Dkt. 51-3 at 5.) The couple felt demeaned by the magistrate judge's decision, and Lori plans to again petition for adoption.[4]

Like Latta and Ehlers, the Watsens are concerned about the many complications Idaho's Marriage Laws add to their family life. Lori Watsen must create a new medical power of attorney every six months, for, without one, she cannot consent to medical treatment for her son. In addition, the Watsens have the same tax and community property problems as Latta and Ehlers. Above all, Lori Watsen wants their " son to have the same pride in us, as his parents, that I feel for my parents, who have been married for 50 years." (L. Watsen Dec. ¶ 36, Dkt. 50.)

3. Shelia Robertson and Andrea Altmayer

Shelia Robertson and Andrea Altmayer live together in Boise. Altmayer works as a massage therapist. Robertson, who has advanced training in communicative disorders, teaches deaf students at a local school district and works part-time as a video relay interpreter.

The two have been in a committed, exclusive relationship since friends introduced them 16 years ago. If Idaho allowed same-sex marriages, they would have married years ago. Although the couple considered marrying outside Idaho, they did not wish to incur the expense of traveling away from their family and friends only to return home with a marriage not recognized in Idaho. Even so, Robertson and Altmayer decided to start a family. Altmayer became pregnant through artificial insemination and gave birth to their son in 2009.

Similar to the Watsens' experience, Robertson and Altmayer completed birth certificate forms identifying Altmayer as the mother and Robertson as a parent. But the birth certificate lists only Altmayer as their son's parent. The lack of a legally recognized parental relationship between Robertson and her son means she cannot consent to medical treatment for him and

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otherwise prevents the couple from equally sharing numerous parental responsibilities. Robertson and Altmayer worry their son will not have the security and stability afforded by two legal parents. Both are deeply concerned their son will grow up believing there is something wrong with his family because his parents cannot marry.

On November 6, 2013, Robertson and Altmayer submitted a marriage license application to the Ada County Recorder. The application was denied only because Robertson and Altmayer are both women. Demeaned but undeterred by this experience, the couple wishes to be married " so that other people understand that we are a family, in a permanent life-long relationship." (S. Robertson Dec. ¶ 15, Dkt. 53.)

4. Amber Beierle and Rachael Robertson

Amber Beierle and Rachael Robertson both grew up, reside, and wish to marry in Idaho. Beierle holds a M.S. in Applied Historical Research and works for the Idaho State Historical Society. Roberston is an Army veteran, having served a tour of duty in Iraq from June 2004 to November 2005. During her military service, Robertson earned the Army Combat Medal and the Soldier Good Conduct Medal. She was honorably discharged from the Army in 2008 and now manages a warehouse in Boise.

Beierle and Robertson met in 2006 and began dating in 2010. The two have been in a committed, exclusive relationship since Valentine's Day, 2011. They bought a house together in December of 2012. The couple plans to raise children, but they worry their children will grow up thinking something is wrong with their family because Beierle and Robertson cannot marry. Although they considered marrying in another state, they wish to be married in their home state of Idaho. And, even if they were married in another state, Idaho law would prevent them from being buried together at the Idaho Veterans Cemetery because they are a same-sex couple.

Beierle and Robertson also applied for a marriage license on November 6, 2013. Although they otherwise qualify for a marriage license, the Ada County Recorder's Office denied the application because they are both women. This experience demeaned Beierle and Robertson. They " want to have the same freedom as opposite-sex couples to marry the person [they] love and to share the benefits and responsibilities of marriage and in the recognition and protections of marriage." (Beierle Dec. ¶ 19, Dkt. 54.)

C. The Defendants

Defendant C.L. " Butch" Otter is the Governor of the State of Idaho. He is sued in his official capacity. As Governor, Defendant Otter is responsible for upholding and ensuring compliance with the Idaho Constitution and statutes enacted by the Legislature, including the marriage laws at issue in this case. See Idaho Const. Art. IV, § 5 (" The supreme executive power of the state is vested in the governor, who shall see that the laws are faithfully executed." ).

Defendant Christopher Rich is Recorder of Ada County, Idaho. He is sued in his official capacity. As the Ada County Recorder, Defendant Rich has " the authority to issue marriage licenses to any party applying for the same who may be entitled under the laws of this state to contract matrimony." Idaho Code § 32-401. On November 6, 2013, an authorized deputy of Defendant Rich denied the Unmarried Plaintiffs' applications for marriage licenses because, as same-sex couples, they were not entitled to contract matrimony in Idaho.

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Early in this case, the State of Idaho moved and was permitted to intervene as a defendant. (Dkt. 38.) The State, by and through the Idaho Attorney General, asserts a strong, independent interest in defending Idaho's laws against constitutional attack. Throughout this litigation, the State has joined in Recorder Rich's motions and briefing.

D. Requested Relief

Plaintiffs bring suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Governor Otter and Recorder Rich acted in their official capacities and under color of law to deprive them of rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[5] They request a declaration that all Idaho laws prohibiting same-sex marriage or barring recognition of valid out-of-state same-sex marriages violate the due process and equal protection guarantees in the Fourteenth Amendment. They also request a permanent injunction against enforcement of any Idaho law that would prohibit or withhold recognition of same-sex marriages. These claims constitute a facial ...

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