In September the Connecticut supreme court agreed to take on what could be a landmark civil union case. But last week the plaintiff in the case, retired local businessman Glen Rosengarten, died of lymphoma. Now Rosengarten's attorneys are saying they will push to keep the case alive. Rosengarten and his then-partner of 15 years, Peter Downes of New York City, were joined in a civil union in Vermont on New Year's Eve, 2000. Six months earlier Vermont had enacted the country's first law allowing same-sex couples to enter into a legal relationship. Rosengarten, who was 54 when he died, filed a petition this summer asking the state supreme court to review decisions made by the state's lower courts, which said they had no jurisdiction over civil union matters, since the state does not recognize same-sex marriages. Vermont is the only state that does recognize same-sex civil unions, and Rosengarten was considered the first person in the nation to attempt to legally dissolve a civil union outside of that state.
Rosengarten's lawyers say they will push to keep the case alive by waiting for the executor of Rosengarten's estate, a determination made in probate court, to stand in for Rosengarten in court. "We're asking the supreme court to keep this case because we think it's a matter of important public interest," said attorney Gary Cohen, who is married to Rosengarten's former wife. "The question of whether the courts have jurisdiction here does not die with Mr. Rosengarten, and there are other couples [affected] by this."
In the past year Rosengarten grew seriously ill with lymphoma and HIV. He said prior to his death he did not believe Downes would try to stake a claim on his assets, but to be on the safe side he wanted to protect the inheritance rights of his three children from a previous marriage. In their petition to the state supreme court, Cohen and cocounsel Kenneth Bartschi of Hartford wrote that the courts should have the jurisdiction to end a civil union, since it is a contract like any other. "Even though Connecticut does not have its own civil unions scheme and does not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the lack of the ability to form such relationships in Connecticut does not evince a strong public policy as to the dissolution of civil unions formed elsewhere," the lawyers wrote. "Dissolving the parties' civil union will not affect any of the myriad rights and responsibilities of marriage for any couple in Connecticut. Nor does it affect the scope of the state's authority to decide who may marry."