News (USA)

Maricopa County attorney sidesteps same-sex adoption fight

“If I really wanted to make this a political battle I could have forced the ACLU to litigate it,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery

PHOENIX, Arizona –— Same-sex couples seeking free legal help with non-contested adoptions from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office can now get it — from a private lawyer.

The decision by Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to farm out the services he’s legally required to provide lets him avoid backtracking on a policy of denying those services to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage.

Montgomery had refused to provide the services earlier this year, saying appeals court rulings making same-sex marriage legal in Arizona didn’t apply to state adoption laws. He still holds that position, even after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down gay marriage bans nationwide two weeks ago.

“The Supreme Court case addressed marriage, it didn’t address adoption, so I didn’t read it to affect that at all,” he said at a news briefing Thursday.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona had threatened to sue Montgomery over the policy, saying married same-sex couples are legally entitled to the same services as traditional married couples, as outlined in the June 26 Supreme Court decision.

Montgomery told The Associated Press that the decision was made as part of an overall reorganization of the department’s juvenile division and as part of a policy decision to stop providing legal services to individuals.

“If I really wanted to make this a political battle I could have forced the ACLU to litigate it,” he said.

The AP called all 10 lawyers under contract, and reached three. All said they’d take any case assigned to them, from straight or gay couples.

“Absolutely,” attorney Stephen Dichter said Friday. “I think I can speak for all of them — the answer for all of them is yes. I certainly haven’t heard a word that suggests otherwise. I’d be surprised to hear otherwise.”

The decision will be costly for the county. Last year, Montgomery’s office handled 282 adoptions, using two legal support staffers and county attorneys. Contracts reviewed by the AP show the contract lawyers’ fees start at $140 an hour and go up to $275 per hour.

County attorneys are required to provide services for uncontested adoptions — generally a married couple where one partner had a child the other wants to legally adopt — under state law. Montgomery pushed a bill through the Legislature this year that would have freed county attorneys from a legal mandate to help with adoptions in an effort seen by some as a way for county attorneys to avoid helping gay couples with adoptions.

But Gov. Doug Ducey, a fellow Republican, vetoed the bill, saying he wanted to see more adoptions, regardless of who the parents are.

The ACLU said Montgomery’s move to contract out adoptions services still needs clarification.

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