Same Sex Marriage

Welcome 2013

This was my 2013 post for LinkedIn Influencers (posted in December):

Welcome 2013. While the years roll by quickly, laws are often slow to catch up to the times. Legislatures move slowly, politicians worry about how their votes on new laws will affect their chances for reelection. And judges have much incentive to take the safe road, follow the rules and laws that have been around forever and to be sure they are themselves upheld on appeal. To accept a novel argument or interpretation of the law opens a judge up to much scrutiny and criticism. But there remains so much room for improvement in the area of family law. Not just to our laws, but within our profession as well. We need increased civility between lawyers and between parties. We need better education about the process and the tools available to achieve resolution. And we need better, more modern laws, to handle the new realities of our society.

On a national and state by state basis we must address how to help same sex couples dissolve their relationships in a civil manner. If they are not allowed to marry, perhaps they should still be allowed to divorce? Otherwise they will still end their relationships, but the process will continue to be confusing, frustrating and sometimes violent. When human beings have no recourse under the law, they engage in self help (sometimes called vigilante justice). Why not permit these tax paying and law abiding citizens to use our court system to resolve their disputes like other citizens? Wether you approve of same sex relationships or not, they exist and prohibiting same sex marriage, or same sex divorce, does not and will not stop same sex relationships. Instead, it helps avoid land disputes, child custody disputes, title disputes and many other problems that ultimately cause all of us money since our tax dollars pay for courts, policemen and other services that are needed when disputes get out of hand. Courts, when permitted to help members of society, for instance in same sex divorces, will reduce cost, tension and resources across the board and thereby help all taxpayers.

So what about DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act)? Will it fall this year? It seems inevitable. The federal government which has historically left family law matters to the states, stepped deep into family law when it approved DOMA. It seems the current trend is to to see DOMA as overreaching. I believe DOMA will be undone (by the courts, since a majority of legislators will likely never vote to do something that implies that they approve of gay marriage).

And international custody issues including abductions, denial of visitation rights and even simple communication via new technology should be reviewed. We all remember the Sean Goldman custody case in Brazil. There are so many cases like his that are not reported in our press. Kids get taken from (or to) the U.S. and are never returned. Even in countries that have signed the relevant Hague Treaties, it is often difficult to get a child back. And in others such as Japan, it is nearly impossible. We need to work on this in 2013.

But again, civility. Handling our family matters in a civil and peaceful way is a must. It all starts with family. And we as lawyers must do our part. Yes family matters such as divorce and custody disputes fall into our adversarial system of justice. And for some disputes, it must be so. But so many family disputes can be resolved amicably if we just let emotions subside. If we pause and think about how we want our children to know we handled our differences. Wouldn’t we all be prouder if family law disputes were resolved by the parties involved and not by lawyers and judges who had never known the family when they got along? Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has played an increasing role in family law. Be it mediation, arbitration, late case evaluation or collaborative law, there are many more options in 2013 than there were in 2003 or in 1993. Let’s take advantage of these resources, and lets all, lawyers, judges, mediators, expert witnesses, psychologists and parties, pledge to work amicably. Court decided resolution is never as good as a result agreed to by the people involved. And that can best be accomplished if we act civilly. Especially us lawyers. We do not have to continue seeing the other side after the dispute is resolved. But our clients do. They will go to their kids’ weddings and other events together. Lets commit to doing our best to ensure that these future events and life itself, will be better and easier for our clients because of the efforts we undertake. That’s my commitment for 2013. I look forward to a positive year of helping people and doing my best to ease their burdens and not to increase them.


NY Federal Court holds DOMA unconstitutional

The following is a copy of my recent post for LinkedIn:

I was interviewed today (October 21, 2012) on CNN about the new Federal Court decision declaring section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional (click here to see the interview: http://youtu.be/TErI_O9nQ6E).  This is another step towards the U.S. Supreme Court eventually addressing it, and in my opinion, declaring sections 2 and 3 to be unconstitutional.  The case was EDITH SCHLAIN WINDSOR, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS EXECUTOR OF THE ESTATE OF THEA CLARA SPYER, – v.- UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The case can be read in full here.

To summarize, the case held that an elderly woman (83 years old), could not be forced to pay over $300,000.00 in federal estate taxes on assets her partner had left to her when she (her long time partner and wife) died. They had gotten married in Canada and lived in New York, where same-sex marriage is legal.

The Court said “Homosexuals have suffered a history of discrimination” and used a  heightened scrutiny test treating gays like other minorities which made it easier to find the law unconstitutional. They said: “[W]e conclude that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional”

Here is what Section 3 says:

“In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

Same Sex marriage licenses are issued in: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia so according to this opinion, the federal government must recognize same sex marriages in these states and thus federal laws applying to married people should apply to married same sex partners.

Will the United States Supreme Court review this case? Who knows?  Perhaps.  But they may want to await a future decision that also raises the constitutionality of section 2 of DOMA, which seems to violate the full faith and credit clause of the constitution by stating that states need not recognize marriages in other states between same sex individuals if such state itself does not want to deem such marriages valid.  But surely this case makes the issue more noticeable and in need of clarification.  And since congress isn’t likely to try to fix this or address the constitutionality (the congress actually paid to defend the law in this case since president Obama would not), it seems the supreme court is where it will ultimately land.

One interesting line from the opinion is: “The law is not concerned with holy matrimony. Government deals with marriage as a civil status–however fundamental–and New York has elected to extend that status to same-sex couples.”  This statement, to me, makes it clear that the legal definition of marriage, can, may and often will differ from the religious, moral and philosophical definitions of marriage espoused by different people, different religious experts and others. But the fact that same sex marriage has been declared legal by some states seemed to carry the day in this case.  This decision stated clearly that the federal government cannot contravene the state’s determination that same sex marriage is authorized and that in this case, the federal law, DOMA which attempts to override state law, is unconstitutional.


Guess what? You are not the mother, the kids are mine!

HLN (formerly “Headline News”) recently called me to help them explain/discuss the legal issues in a very interesting case about whether a “surrogate” mother is also a legal mother (To see the interview, click here: /video).

The case arose when a woman who could not have kids of her own agreed to have a child with a long time male friend.  They decided to use a donor egg, his sperm and she would carry the baby.   But when she gave birth, she was immediately served with papers saying that he was the only legal parent and would be raising the child with his male lover/partner.   They even obtained a restraining order to prevent her from breastfeeding.  We don’t know what documents were signed (but it was likely a “surrogacy” agreement disclaiming any rights to the child, probably thinking she was merely signing documents needed to get the donated egg), but no matter what, she was devastated.  And the interesting legal point is: Is a surrogate mother a legal mother?  What happened? What did she sign? Was she defrauded? Do the normal rules of contracts (meeting of the minds, absence of fraud) even apply, or should there be a higher standard to meet before the father can enforce such a contract.  As of the time I was interviewed, the father had custody and the woman (should we call her the mother?) was suing to get rights to the children.

So why is this such a new thing? Because artificial insemination is only thirty years old.  Before that there was no possibility of such a problem.  And even then, it was all very controlled.  Now that surrogacy and ART (Artificial Reproductive Technology) is becoming commonplace, this issue, and many like it are arising and challenging us.  Law vs morality.  Social values vs. strict contract terms.  And that is where we as lawyers can help.  Until the legislatures of the states and perhaps of the United States can predict and resolve all such dilemmas in advance, great lawyering and judging will have to get us through.


Kessler commenting on Obama and same sex marriage

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2w6-bHP2Ws[/youtube]


Obama’s statement on “gay” marriage

This is a watershed moment. It will affect thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of lives. Perhaps soon there will be no such thing as “gay” marriage and it will return to simply “marriage”, which may be between same sex individuals or different sex individuals. Years ago the debate was “interracial” marriage, but today, when a black person and white person marry, it is simply called “marriage”. They do not sign forms and indicate they have an “interracial” marriage. They are simply…married. That looks like what is on it’s way for “same sex” or “gay” marriage. Barack Obama’s statement (see CNN article) and what impact it could have, who knows. But it is a step. In a nutshell, here is what he said: “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

Of course, leaving such a decision to the states sounds like the old republican refrain (states’ rights) but on this issue, the last republican president sought a national plan. It certainly makes for interesting politics and it seems, like with many other issues of our, and our predecessors’ times, that society is moving ahead of the law. Same sex marriage is becoming more widely accepted and the law is following, albeit not everywhere (such as North Carolina).

Still the legal issues remain complicated and interesting. How do you resolve custody disputes between two gay men? How do you divide property, assets, real estate between a gay couple who separates? We can clog up our court system and make them file a separate lawsuit for each issue, or we could allow them to divorce, and to make use of the system already in place for heterosexual couples who break up, and that is the divorce process.


First Ever GA ICLE Same Sex Legal Seminar

In March 2012, Georgia, a state which may well be one of the very last to recognize gay marriage, will celebrate a first, the first legal seminar hosted by ICLE to focus exclusively on same sex issues (click here for the brochure).

This program will be a comprehensive and thought provoking one. The first discussions will focus on the initial consultation and issues to discover and raise early. The next panel will cover the status of gay marriage and civil unions in the United States, interaction between federal and state law regarding same sex marriage, the portability of marriage and (un)availability of divorce and rights and remedies not available to gay couples where marriage or civil unions are not recognized. They will also discuss recent notable cases.

Other panels will discuss alternatives to divorce (since divorce is not available to same sex couples in Georgia) and alternative legal theories to resolve disputes under Georgia law. The entire program should be highly informative and educational. Even if you, as a lawyer, do not practice in this area, isn’t it something you/we should all understand and know what the law, and legal paths available are?

I can’t wait to watch and learn and hope you will consider joining us as we discuss these issues that many of us try to figure out each day in our practices, on a case by case basis. And again, to view the brochure and date andtime information, please click here.


ABA Family Law Section plans for South Beach Seminar in full swing

“SoBe”…South Beach in the Spring, what could be better? Please consider joining us April 18-21, 2012. After a very successful CLE program in Vegas this past October, we are on a “CLE roll”. The programs scheduled for Miami include:“How to Impress Judges: Analytical Steps to a Well Organized, Concise, and Engaging Trial”, “Social Networking for the Family Lawyer..” and “If you love me, put it in writing.” The full tentative schedule can be accessed by clicking here.
And one more time, the location…the Eden Roc Hotel in South Beach, in the heart of Miami Beach, is old style Miami art deco, but fully renovated and hip. It’s a great place to learn and to mingle with family law attorneys from across the country. There will be family law discussed not only indoors, but pool side and at the beach. Isn’t that better than your conference room? I hope you will consider joining us for this fun filled educational meeting. See you in the sun!. – Randall M. Kessler


ABA FLS Brochure available now

The American Bar Association, Family Law Section’s Fall CLE Brochure is out and available on line (click here to view it). The seminar will be held in Law Vegas at the Encore (Wynn) Hotel October 26-29, 2011.

We have worked hard to develop an exciting and educational program. Topics include: “Saving a Stolen Childhood: How to Prevent and Resolve International Kidnapping Cases,” and “Diminishing Returns: Effects of Illness, Psychological Problems, and Addiction on Support Calculations”.

The speakers and program producers have worked very hard to organize and create this exciting program and we hope you will join us. Please pull up the brochure, sign up and join us. Again, click here for the brochure: BROCHURE.


ABA Annual Meeting special one for me

The 2011 American Bar Association Annual meeting which begins this week in Toronto (click here for a link to the home page for the meeting), holds special meaning for me. On Friday August 5, 2011 I will be sworn in as Chair of the Family Law Section (FLS) of the ABA. I am so honored and excited. The FLS has 10,000 members who are all interested in the practice of family law, whether they are lawyers, judges or law students (over 9,000 are lawyers). Our goal, and mine, is to improve the practice of family law and to minimize the negative impact family law can have on families. My platform will be a continuation of our “Families Matter” project which has the reduction of such an impact on families as its goal.

Practicing family law has been gratifying, knowing that we can and have helped many families. It also can and has been frustrating. When bad results happen to good people, especially to children, it can be devastating. But our job is not to be devastated and depressed, but to persevere and find better solutions. Through the ABA we are working to improve the system and to hopefully help all families achieve better results that are better for the whole family. Of course this is a difficult task, but it is one that any civilized society must undertake. All family law professionals (lawyers, judges, psychologists, accountants and others) play a role. Is our system perfect? No way. In fact, our systems vary from state to state and from community to community. But we are evolving. Today, family law is not an area of the law that is looked down upon. To the contrary, it is an area of the law viewed by many as one of the most important areas of law that exist. What other area has the ability to affect families and futures as much as ours? And with that comes a significant burden, a burden to help families and a burden to improve society.

I am glad to be in a position to help families. In my practice I often have that opportunity, and as Chair of the Family Law Section of the ABA, I have been given an even greater opportunity. I will try my best not to squander it and to do what I can to help families and professionals who are helping those families. If there is anything I can do, I hope you will call on me to serve you. It will be an honor to serve and I am sure, an experience I will never forget.


Gay Marriage Issues are everywhere, not just NY

I blogged a few days ago about President Obama’s decision to support the repeal of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which is the federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman and stating that states need not respect marriages performed in other states which are between members of the same sex. Now gay marriage is again in the news as New York has passed a law allowing it and this week the first gay marriages in New York have taken place. The local public radio station interviewed me about it and got me thinking (the interview can be heard by clicking here). The expansion of gay marriage to New York increases the likelihood that other states such as Georgia will encounter these issues. There will be gay couples who divorce in New York, legally, and then move to Georgia. Then the dilemma for Georgia courts will be how to treat such valid orders from other states. Under DOMA, Georgia would not have to recognize such an order based on a gay marriage. But if DOMA is overturned by the new “Respect for Marriage” act, then would Georgia be violating the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution if it did not recognize and enforce a valid “gay divorce”? These are interesting questions and I continue to look forward to them unfolding and how our judiciary and bar work to resolve these issues. The solutions are not easy and the process has obstacles, but our civilized society has handled and overcome much tougher issues. I am confident this one will be resolved with time as well.