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Marriage Equality

Appeals Court: Yes, There Is Marriage Equality in Puerto Rico

Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez
Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez

Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez’s ruling that the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision does not apply in the territory “errs in so many respects that it is hard to know where to begin,” says the First Circuit.


A federal appeals court today affirmed that Puerto Rico's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, despite a lower court judge's opinion to the contrary.

District Court Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez's March ruling that the ban still stands despite the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 marriage equality decision "errs in so many respects that it is hard to know where to begin," said an unsigned opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The opinion was first reported by BuzzFeed.

The appeals court ordered Perez-Gimenez pulled from the case and ordered that it "be assigned randomly by the clerk to a different judge to enter judgment in favor of the Petitioners promptly." This is what Lambda Legal and the other lawyers representing Puerto Rico's same-sex couples had asked the appeals court to do.

Shortly thereafter, the new judge, District Court Judge Gustavo A. Gelpi issued a judgment striking down the ban, Lambda reports.

Perez-Gimenez had ruled that the Supreme Court's June decision in Obergefell v. Hodges did not apply to Puerto Rico, as it is an unincorporated territory and not a state. Lambda and the rest of the legal team disagreed, saying that many courts had ruled that fundamental constitutional rights, such as the right to marry, applied equally in states and territories.

The First Circuit agreed with Lambda's position, noting that the rights in question in the marriage case -- the Constitution's guarantees of due process and equal protection -- "have already been incorporated to Puerto Rico." "And even if they had not," the appeals court held, "the district court would have been able to decide whether they should be."

The case had come back to Perez-Gimenez in a complicated manner. He upheld Puerto Rico's same-sex marriage ban in October 2014, in a ruling in which he wondered if bans on incest and polygamy could be struck down if the same-sex marriage ban were. The couple challenging the ban, represented by Lambda, then appealed his decision to the First Circuit. After the Obergefell decision, territorial officials, who had been defending the ban, agreed with the plaintiffs that the law was unconstitutional.

So did the First Circuit, which vacated Perez-Gimenez's 2014 ruling and sent it back to him for further consideration in light of Obergefell, adding, "We agree with the parties' joint position that the ban is unconstitutional." After he took a contrary position in March, Lambda and its team filed a mandamus petition, seeking what is called a writ of mandamus, a court order for a lower court to perform a specific task. That is what the appeals court granted today, and the district court has now complied.

Despite Perez-Gimenez's March decision, same-sex marriages have continued uninterrupted in Puerto Rico since last summer, and these marriages are unquestionably valid, Lambda staff attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan told The Advocate last month.

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