Marriage Equality Rights on Trial
Texas' Supreme Court should issue a ruling by June
By Sarah Marloff, Fri., March 10, 2017
The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments last Wednesday on the legality of Houston's spousal benefits policy, which grants all married couples – gay and straight – insurance benefits. Texas' most powerful conservatives are hopeful the state's high court will rule in their favor and put limitations on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 Marriage Equality ruling. The court conceded to hear the hour of arguments four months after originally denying petitioners Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks' request for review. Since September, state justices have received an onslaught of requests – as well as an amicus brief filed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton – in support of the Pidgeon and Hicks case ("Supreme Court Reconsiders Same-Sex Benefits," Jan. 27). Jonathan Mitchell, counsel for the plaintiffs, argued insurance coverage is not a "fundamental right" and that states should be the ones to decide whether to offer benefits to same-sex couples. Houston attorneys defended the city's right to provide benefits to all legally married employees and contended that the SCOTUS decision "left no remaining issues to be decided by any state supreme court or any other state official." The court is expected to rule by June.
The context of the case got clouded that same day, however, when Austin resident Mandy Dealey filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct against state Supreme Court Justice Don Willett alleging that Willett – a state justice who enjoys a rare amount of good-natured celebrity – "sacrific[ed] judicial integrity in the face of an email campaign by an anti-LGBT group" when he reversed his decision to review the case – a nod to a recent PR pitch from the Conservative Republicans of Texas. Dealey said that she cited Willett because the justice is "the recognized leader of the anti-LGBT faction of the Texas Supreme Court." By doing so, Dealey charged, Willett violated the state's code of judicial conduct by allowing himself to be swayed by "partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism." The code also prohibits sexual orientation biases, which Dealey says Willett violated. The complaint requests that Willett disclose all communications received in regard to Pidgeon v. Turner, as well as the measures taken by the court to prevent improper lobbying. Osler McCarthy, a PIO for the state Supreme Court, specified to the Chronicle on Wednesday that "the issue in Pidgeon was not marriage equality per se, but whether Houston could pay same-sex couples married legally out of state spousal benefits when Texas made even recognition of such marriages illegal" – a relevant distinction, he said, between what Dealey is alleging and what Willett was to rule on. McCarthy also noted how Supreme Court voting on petitions is not public, meaning one cannot know for sure if Willett did in fact reconsider his position.
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