TAMPA — Attorney General Pam Bondi may be fighting to prevent same-sex couples from marrying in Florida, but she is also taking a legal position that has the effect of forcing gay couples who married elsewhere to stay married, lawyers in a Tampa case say.
Bondi’s office announced Friday it was appealing several court rulings overturning the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
The attorney general is also entering a Tampa same-sex divorce case to defend a judge’s finding that a lesbian married couple couldn’t be granted a divorce because the state doesn’t recognize their Massachusetts wedding.
That case is now before the Lakeland-based 2nd District Court of Appeal.
Lawyers say Bondi’s office has been invited twice to join the case. And Friday, the attorney general filed motions seeking to intervene “to defend state law, ensure further review if necessary, and promote an orderly resolution of the legal issues presented.”
Bondi “finally decided that she wants same-sex couples to remain married in the state of Florida,” said Brett Rahall, the Tampa-based attorney of one of the women wishing to divorce, Mariama Changamire Shaw.
The legal position of the state is that Florida doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages that take place in other jurisdictions. So if the marriages aren’t legally recognized, the courts can’t dissolve them.
But in taking that stance, Rahall said, Bondi “has to argue that it’s in the state’s best interest that same-sex couples remain married. … I think it’s a really dangerous slope that they’re on.”
“If the attorney general’s office is arguing that they do not have the right to divorce, then they have staked out the absurd position that two people of the same sex should remained married under federal law against their will,” said Adam Cordover, attorney for Keiba Lynn Shaw, the other half of the Tampa couple seeking to divorce.
Rahall said his office has received calls from numerous other people stuck in same-sex marriages that have gone bad. “It’s miserable for them,” he said.
One man called the law office because his husband cheated on him and then left the state, Rahall said. Because the federal government recognizes the marriage, he has to file his federal income tax return as a married person, but he can’t get a divorce in Florida.
“He just wants to get divorced from the guy that cheated on him, and he can’t,” Rahall said.
The attorney general’s motion to enter the Shaw case says the court should not be considering the question of whether Florida should recognize same-sex marriages, an issue it says has “good people on all sides.”
Instead, the motion says, that “policy should come from the voters and not from the courts.”
Florida voters added the gay marriage ban to the state’s Constitution in 2008.
Cordover said he welcomes Bondi’s decision to join the case. “There is no better demonstration of the lack of any legitimate state interest for preventing two women from divorcing than having someone attempt to argue its rationality.”
The attorney general’s motion seeks to sidestep that, arguing that the state doesn’t have to give a basis for the voters’ choice. The issue for the courts to decide, the attorney general’s motion says, is whether the couple seeking to divorce “can demonstrate that there is not even a conceivable reason for Florida’s voters to define marriage as they have. Under current law, appellant cannot satisfy this showing.”
The attorney general’s brief doesn’t give what the voters’ reasons might be, other than to say some other courts have found “conceivable justification” for these bans and that the Constitution permits Florida voters to “consider the experience of other states before deciding whether to change the traditional definition of marriage.”