Law & Daily Life - The FindLaw Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

First Circuit Slams Door on Puerto Rico Gay Marriage Ban

Like Alabama, Puerto Rico resisted federal court rulings overturning it's ban on same-sex marriage. And like Alabama, Puerto Rico got slapped by a federal circuit court of appeals. Unlike Alabama though, Puerto Rico at least had a decent argument for flaunting a higher court's ruling -- not every civil right preserved in the Constitution extends to Puerto Ricans.

But, as the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week, the right to marriage is protected for same-sex couples in Puerto Rico. And the court was not vague about its ruling.

Insular Shock

The case's history is crucial here, as it has bounced from court to court over the past few years even as laws were changing around it. We'll let the First Circuit break it down:

During the pendency of a prior appeal from the dismissal of Petitioners' claims, the United States Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015). In the wake of that decision, all parties agreed that the Commonwealth's ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. We agreed, vacated the judgment, and remanded. On remand, the district court nevertheless denied the parties' joint request that the court enter judgment in favor of Petitioners. Instead, the court issued a memorandum concluding that the Commonwealth's ban was not unconstitutional because, the district court claimed, the "right to same-sex marriage" has not been determined to apply in Puerto Rico.

Where did the district court get the impression that the constitutional right to same-sex marriage might not apply in Puerto Rico? From the U.S. Supreme Court, of course. Over a series of decisions in 1901, known as the Insular Cases, the Court determined that not all constitutional rights apply automatically to residents of U.S. territories.

Where to Even Begin?

Despite the supposed confusion, the First Circuit was having none of U.S. District Judge Juan M. Perez-Gimenez's shenanigans: "The district court's ruling errs in so many respects that it is hard to know where to begin." OK, then. Maybe start with the Constitution?

The constitutional rights at issue here are the rights to due process and equal protection, as protected by both the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Those rights have already been incorporated as to Puerto Rico. And even if they had not, then the district court would have been able to decide whether they should be. In any event, for present purposes we need not gild the lily. Our prior mandate was clear.

Alrighty then. So it's back to the district court for Perez-Gimenez to enter the judgment then?

Respondents' motion to join in the petition for writ of mandamus is granted, the petition itself is also granted, and the case is remitted to be assigned randomly by the clerk to a different judge to enter judgment in favor of the Petitioners promptly, and to conduct any further proceedings necessary in this action.

Ouch.

We hope this will put to bed any notion of disobeying federal courts on gay marriage. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and territories.

Related Resources: