Ruling Treats Lesbian Couple as if Married
A Superior Court judge in Washington state has expanded the state's recognition of same-sex families.
In an opinion issued Friday, Yakima County Judge Heather Van Nuys ordered two women to split the property they had amassed over a 10-year relationship, despite the fact that the couple's house was in one woman's name only, and the women did not have written contracts or documents attesting to their partnership.
Instead of relying on legal technicalities, Van Nuys noted that the couple, physician Julia Robertson and nurse Linda Gormley, shared their lives in every respect and operated under an unwritten, but nonetheless enforceable, joint agreement. Under principles derived from English common law, "courts have the power to do what's fair, based on what people intended, and to prevent injustice," said Jennifer Pizer, west coast senior attorney for Lambda Legal Education and Defense Fund.
Pizer called the ruling a "tiny step" in terms of the use of equitable remedies, but a "monumental step" in terms of their application in a lesbian family dispute.
Van Nuys referred as well to a state Supreme Court ruling earlier in the year, in which the justices paved the way for Frank Vasquez of Puyallup to keep the home he shared with his late partner.
Under state community property law, unmarried couples who have a "marriage-like" relationship may make a claim on shared assets. In Vasquez's case, however, lower courts ruled that a same-sex couple could not, by definition, have a "marriage-like" relationship, and could therefore not benefit from the law. After ruling that gay and lesbian couples did indeed qualify, the justices sent Vasquez back to a lower court, where he came to a settlement with his partner's family.
Van Nuys noted that Robertson and Gormley also shared a "marriage-like" relationship, and that Gormley could argue her claim on half their joint property based on the Supreme Court's ruling in the Vasquez case. Van Nuys' ruling, however, went further, said Pizer, by fully recognizing the couple as a family like any other.