The chief justice of the Iowa supreme court said Friday that a challenge to a state judge's decision to dissolve a lesbian couple's civil union obtained in Vermont raises "very thorny and difficult issues." Chief Justice Louis A. Lavorato made the comment as the high court heard oral arguments in the case. The court wouldn't say when a decision is expected.
The lawsuit, filed by the legal arm of the Iowa Family Policy Center, a Des Moines-based conservative group, challenges a 2003 decision by Judge Jeffrey Neary that granted two women a divorce. Neary amended his ruling to say their civil union was terminated.
The Iowa Family Policy Center claims Neary overstepped his authority and appealed the decision to the high court. The group said that by dissolving the civil union, Neary was recognizing gay marriage. "It creates precedent that the Iowa courts will recognize out-of-state same-sex unions, and that precedent is very damaging, as we've seen in Vermont and Massachusetts," said Chuck Hurley, president of the policy center.
U.S. representative from Iowa Steve King, a handful of state legislators, and the Church of Christ in Le Mars are listed as plaintiffs in the case. During arguments Friday, the supreme court justices questioned Iowa Family Policy Center attorney Kevin Theriot about whether the plaintiffs had standing to file the lawsuit since they didn't represent parties in the original case.
Theriot said he's confident the judges will determine the group did have the right to file the lawsuit and will decide in its favor after reviewing the merits of the case. They will "most importantly recognize that the people of Iowa have already spoken, and that is that marriage is between one man and one woman, and anything short of that undermines marriage," he said.
The groups that oppose the lawsuit include the American Civil Liberties Union, Iowa Civil Liberties Union, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Central Iowa.
Camilla Taylor of Lambda Legal, a GLBT advocacy group, said the case isn't about gay marriage. "This case isn't about marriage, isn't about civil unions, but about whether people have the right to interfere in other peoples' cases," she said. The plaintiffs shouldn't have gotten involved in a private family matter, she said, calling the lawsuit "mean-spirited. Simply having antigay opinions about whether two individuals should have the same access to the courts as anybody else doesn't give you the right to come into court and give you the right to interfere in their family matter."
Neary has said he doesn't support same-sex marriage and simply terminated a civil union. Neary said this week that he wouldn't be commenting on the case until a decision is made. He didn't immediately respond to a telephone message left by the Associated Press on Friday.
The Iowa Family Policy Center tried last year to have Neary voted off the bench. However, Iowans in six counties voted 37,873 to 26,409 to retain the state judge, who was first appointed to the bench by Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2002. Experts said the advocacy group's campaign may have been the first since the
judicial retention system began more than 40 years ago. Only four judges have been unseated by voters since that time.
Iowa judge calls lesbian divorce case a "thorny" issue