April 2, 2004

Local LGBT Group May Sue Ithaca on Marriage

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One might think a chief defendant in a lawsuit would make a point of disagreeing with the plaintiffs.

But in a possible suit against the City of Ithaca and the State of New York over the denial of same-sex marriage licenses, possible plaintiffs already have the support of Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson and City Attorney Martin A. Luster.

Last week, 51 same-sex couples received rejection letters from the city in response to their applications for a marriage license. 26 have joined the Ithaca Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Task Force’s ad-hoc legal committee on same-sex marriage, said committee member Jason Seymour.

The group, which includes Cornell law students and attorneys willing to pursue the case pro bono, plans to meet next week to discuss legal strategy, Seymour said.

According to City clerk Julie Conley Holcomb, “to date no one has filed suit against the city.”

Seymour said he has heard of a few couples that have already contacted lawyers.

“We’re really going to get a pulse on legal options [and LGBT community sentiment] in a few days,” Seymour said, adding that, “some lawsuit is probably going to come from [the group’s meetings].”

Luster outlined the city’s stance, which Seymour and others felt has been misinterpreted.

“[If there is a suit], we, along with the state, will be sued by these couples. Our position is that the state’s superior jurisdiction required us to reject the applications, but that we will support the plaintiffs,” Luster said.

Ithaca resident Allen Lambert, in a March 16 letter to the Ithaca Times, expressed his concern that “Ithaca politicians are committing all local tax payers to an unspecified but potentially huge expenditure of funds from a budget that not only cannot afford to fix potholes or properly fund the fire and police departments but does not have an approved line for such an expenditure.” Lambert also argued that Luster, “who does not have to pay Ithaca taxes or housing prices or get elected — seems to be promoting this novel approach to public funding of official support for civil disobedience.”

Misunderstanding, Luster, Seymour and ILGBTTF co-chair Bob Wigden all said, arises over one word uttered by Luster and Peterson: “support.”

“There are no city budgetary implications in the position we’ve taken,” Luster explained, noting that the city will be named in any potential suit.

Luster said the city has simply chosen to respond to possible plaintiff allegations not by “saying it isn’t so,” but that “it is so.” Any litigation fees incurred will be within the city attorney office’s budget, Luster said.

The city set its own precedent for supporting same-sex marriages. In a 1996 case, Storrs et al. v. Holcomb, the city also supported a same-sex couple that also sued the city clerk.

The plaintiffs in the Storrs suit ran into a technicality and eventually stopped legal action, Wigden recalled.

The state’s department of health will likely be named in any suit because of the technicality from the 1996 case, Luster said. An appellate court, “recogniz[ing] that the city and the [plaintiffs] were on the same side,” required the suit to name the state health department as a defendant.

“So there’s a precedent [for the City’s current position],” Luster said, adding that this time the city’s stronger commitment is “taking it a step further.”

The attorneys willing to work pro bono on possible suits are former city attorney Mariette Geldenhuys, Pamela Bleiwas and the firm of Bixler and Stumbar. Luster said the attorneys have met already and noted strategies from which they might choose. One possibility is filing for recognition of a same-sex marriage performed in Canada, Luster said; another would be to seek clarification as to what the equivalent a civil union would be in New York.

“All you need is one [couple],” for an effective suit, Luster said. Gary Buseck, legal director of Lambda Legal Defense, a group providing legal support to same-sex lawsuits, will speak on legalizing same-sex marriage tomorrow, in Goldwin Smith D Auditorium, from 7:30 – 9 p.m. After Buseck’s presentation, Luster, Prof. Ellis Hanson, english, Prof. Anna Marie Smith, government and Ithaca College LBGT Center director Lisa Maurer will answer audience questions.

Archived article by Dan Galindo
Sun Senior Writer