US judge orders Arizona to list same-sex spouse on death certificate

The federal judge acknowledged that the surviving spouse faced 'irreparable emotional harm,' but stopped short of striking down Arizona's ban on same-sex marriages, for now. 

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund/AP
In this July 2014 photo provided by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Fred McQuire, left, and George Martinez pose for photos at their wedding in California.

A federal judge on Friday ordered Arizona officials to ignore the state’s ban on same-sex marriages and issue a death certificate to the surviving spouse in a gay marriage.

US District Judge John Sedwick directed state officials to promptly issue a death certificate for George Martinez and to list Fred McQuire on the certificate as Mr. Martinez’s spouse.

The two men were long-time partners and lived in Green Valley, Ariz. They were among 19 plaintiffs who filed a federal lawsuit in March claiming that Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriages violated their constitutional rights. The lawsuit also challenged Arizona’s refusal to recognize as valid marriages of gay men and lesbians conducted in other states.

Although the couple were elderly, they were actually newlyweds at the time of Martinez’s death, having tied the knot in a California ceremony in July.

Martinez, who had been ill, passed away on Aug. 28, after realizing his dream of marrying Mr. McQuire, his longtime partner.

Amid his mourning, McQuire has been fighting Arizona to force state officials to recognize on the death certificate that Martinez and McQuire were spouses, and that McQuire is the surviving spouse.

The “spouse” designation on a death certificate can be important for purposes of inheritance, taxes, insurance, and other survivor benefits.

It is also important as recognition of a lasting commitment and an enduring relationship, his lawyer said. 

Nonetheless, Arizona officials cited the state’s ban on recognition of same-sex marriages. Since Arizona law does not accept the Martinez-McQuire marriage as valid, they were powerless to record McQuire as the surviving spouse.

Enter Judge Sedwick.

Lawyers for McQuire asked the judge to order Arizona officials to issue the death certificate. Briefs were filed and a hearing was conducted on Friday

In a 14-page decision, the judge said he was not striking down Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriages or its refusal to recognize such marriages. Or, at least, not yet. He said that was merely granting relief that would only apply to one person – McQuire.

“This limitation substantially reduces the reach and impact of the injunctive relief he seeks,” the judge said.

“The court has not yet decided whether there is a conflict between Arizona law and the [US] Constitution,” Sedwick wrote. “But the court has decided that it is probable that there is such a conflict so that Arizona will be required to permit same-sex marriages.”

In his request to the court, McQuire’s lawyers argued that their client faced irreparable harm unless the judge intervened and resolved the death certificate issue.

The judge noted that the Supreme Court has recognized that the right to marry confers “a dignity and a status of immense import.” Sedwick added that “McQuire likely faces irreparable emotional harm by being denied this dignity and status as he grieves Martinez’s death.”

The lawyers also argued that McQuire would be harmed financially through loss of survivor benefits unless he was listed as the surviving spouse on the certificate.

Martinez enjoyed substantially larger social security and veteran’s benefits than McQuire, who is in poor health and unable to work. Such benefits are routinely passed to a spouse and it would mean a monthly income for McQuire of $4,000 rather than $1,300.

Since McQuire’s monthly mortgage payment was $750, it was likely that he could lose his home, the judge noted.

But Sedwick acknowledged that there was a problem with McQuire’s claim. The newlywed couple had not been married long enough to satisfy requirements of federal law. Social security survivor benefits are available only after nine months of marriage, and veteran’s benefits require at least a year of marriage.

The judge found that McQuire faced a third kind of harm from the violation of his constitutional rights.

Lawyers for Arizona argued that the state’s marriage laws do not violate the Constitution.

Sedwick rejected the argument. He said the significant number of recent court decisions invalidating state same-sex marriage bans substantially undercut the state’s position.

Within the past year, 18 federal judges, three federal appeals courts, and numerous state judges have declared same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. In contrast, a federal judge in Louisiana and a state judge in Tennessee have ruled that such bans do not violate the Constitution.

Seven cases are currently pending at the US Supreme Court, and the justices are expected to consider whether to take up one or all of the cases during their private conference on Sept. 29.

Aside from the ongoing challenges, 19 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Thirty-one states have banned such marriages by statute or constitutional amendment.

The Arizona case is Majors v. Jeanes (14CV518).

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