A Florida attorney is predicting that Florida will see marriage equality within a year, and he points to a Tampa lawsuit as the case that may represent the tipping point.
Eddie Stephens, a partner with Ward Damon law firm based out of West Palm Beach, said there are two factors indicating that Shaw vs. Shaw, the lawsuit by a same-sex couple legally married in Massachusetts who now live in Florida and want a divorce, will result in significant progress for marriage equality in Florida.
First, the case was filed earlier and is four to five months ahead of other, similar Florida cases.
Second, the circumstances of Shaw vs. Shaw deny the plaintiffs access to a court.
“There’s a constitutional argument there that if you’re denied the right to a court, that has to be addressed,” Stephens said. “So likely it will be addressed in Hillsborough before the Supreme Court deals with these other counties.”
Stephens is referring to circuit judges in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties who have declared the Florida ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional over the past few weeks. The Hillsborough case “is a weird situation,” he said, because the couple can’t get divorced in Massachusetts because of residency requirements, and they can’t get divorced in Florida because Florida law will not allow recognition of their same-sex union. This creates the urgent access to court situation, which Stephens said the “other cases don’t really possess that element.”
As far as his prediction that same-sex marriage will be legal in Florida in a year, Stephens is basing that on the process and length of time for adoption by gay people to become legal in Florida.
“When we dealt with same-sex couples adopting it was a challenge from Miami, and it was just an opinion from the Third District Court of Appeals. No one challenged it any further so that became the law of the land,” Stephens said. “Now it looks like there is so much momentum with other circuit judges striking down the statute, it seems like [a similar decision] will be a given in Tampa.”
After the adoption decision, he said it took about a year to finalize things, and that’s why he thinks Florida is about a year away from same-sex marriage.
Currently, Shaw v. Shaw is still in process. According to Brett Rahall, who represents one of the women seeking a divorce, the judge dismissed the case May 9, and they filed an appeal May 10. Now, they’re working on a brief he expects will be filed later this month.
“[The brief] tells the appellate court why we’re complaining about the order [to dismiss] from the trial judge,” Rahall said. “It says the judge made a mistake refusing to grant the divorce because the statute and constitutional amendment relied upon to make that decision are unconstitutional.”
In the meantime, the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, the Florida Chapter of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the City of Miami are all requesting permission to file friend of the court briefs in the case, arguing the women’s marriage (and divorce) should be recognized in Florida.