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Missouri Supreme Court says lower courts can consider same-sex divorce cases

Missouri Supreme Court says lower courts can consider same-sex divorce cases
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge should not have dismissed a request to divorce a same-sex couple, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, but didn’t decide on the broader issue of whether judges can grant divorces to gay couples.

Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City, Mo.
Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City, Mo.

The ruling kicks the issue back to the St. Louis judge to at least consider the request from the man, who was married in Iowa. But it’s still unclear whether gay marriages can be dissolved while separate rulings that overturned Missouri’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage are being appealed.

At issue is the December 2012 marriage and August 2013 separation of a man identified in court documents as M.S., and his partner, identified as D.S. “Ultimately,” Drey Cooley, M.S.’ attorney, said Tuesday. “The case is just about two people seeking a divorce.”

A judge had denied M.S.’s petition for a divorce last January saying he lacked jurisdiction because of bans on same-sex marriages in state statutes and the Missouri Constitution. It was appealed to the state high court; because the state was not a party in the divorce case, there was no attorney to defend the constitutional provision.

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“The only appropriate thing for the court to do is to make a ruling to dismiss the case based on the fact that there is nothing valid here to invalidate,” said Kerry Messer, head of the Missouri Family Network, which opposes same-sex marriage.

But Supreme Court judges said in an opinion issued Tuesday that Missouri judges do have jurisdiction and, if nothing else, could deny requests for same-sex divorce.

Tuesday’s unanimous opinion could result in another court battle over whether same-sex couples living in Missouri can be divorced in a state that prohibits such marriages, although that ban has been thrown into question.

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An October decision by a Jackson County Circuit Court judge said Missouri must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, and Attorney General Chris Koster did not appeal.

A month later, a state judge in a St. Louis and a federal judge in Kansas City both overturned the state’s ban, but appeals are pending before the state Supreme Court and the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

October’s rulings on out-of-state gay marriages likely means M.S. and D.S. will be granted a divorce, says Tony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also expected to take up gay marriages in the coming months, which Cooley said he is optimistic about.

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If the issue isn’t resolved, though, married couples could be “trapped” in a marriage, Rothert said, which would bind them financially and leave them with “no way of ending the relationship.”

Other states with bans on marriage between same-sex couples currently are grappling with how to handle divorces, too.

An Alabama judge in March 2014 dismissed a lesbian couple’s request to divorce after marrying in Iowa, and the Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed a similar case in June 2014 on procedural grounds. Another case on whether to allow divorces for same-sex marriage is pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

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