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Washington State court favors equity for gay couples

Washington State court favors equity for gay couples

A ruling that same-sex couples are subject to the same principles as married couples in disputes over joint assets when they separate has been upheld by the Washington State court of appeals. Legal marriage rights are irrelevant in the case arising from the breakup of a 10-year relationship between Julia Robertson and Linda Gormley, a three-judge panel of the court's Division III in Spokane ruled on Tuesday. "Whether same-sex couples can legally marry is for the legislature to decide," Judge Kenneth H. Kato wrote, "but the rule that courts must 'examine the (meretricious) relationship and the property accumulations and make a just and equitable disposition of the property' is a judicial, not a legislative, extension of the rights and protections of marriage to an intimate, unmarried couple." Judge John A. Schultheis concurred. The third member of the panel, Judge Stephen M. Brown, also concurred in the outcome but asserted that the case should have been considered "a property dispute filed as a civil suit...not a domestic relations case." The majority ruling, Brown wrote, strayed "into policy making best left to the legislature." Lawyers on both sides said it was the first time a Washington State appellate court had ruled directly on whether property division rules that cover divorces also apply in the breakup of same-sex couples. "I think they correctly viewed equity in its traditional sense as playing fair," said Patricia S. Novotny, a lawyer for the Northwest Women's Law Center. "Playing fair does not look at the quality of the relationship of the parties. It just looks at the circumstances." The law center supported Lynn Gormley, a nurse and medical administrator in Seattle, who sued her former partner, Yakima physician Julia Robertson, after their breakup in 1998. The two began living together in 1988, two years after they began a relationship while both were lieutenant commanders in the Navy. Yakima County superior court judge Heather K. Van Nuys ruled in 2002 that Gormley and Robertson should divide their assets, including a house, according to the same equity rules that would apply in the divorce of a husband and wife. According to Van Nuys, her decision meant $32,342.50 for Gormley. Robertson appealed, claiming that that standard applied only to traditional marriages or male-female live-in relationships. "It's sort of an interpretation that was made by the court of appeals," said Robertson's lawyer, Bryan P. Myre. Myre had argued that Robertson made substantially more money that Gormley and contributed most of the money and assets that they pooled during their time together. He said he would consult with her before deciding whether to appeal to the state supreme court.

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