Md. court considering same-sex spousal privilege

HAGERSTOWN — A Western Maryland woman who legally married her lesbian partner in the District of Columbia invoked her right not to testify against her in a domestic-assault case Monday.

Prosecutors asked the judge to compel her testimony, arguing that because Maryland doesn’t allow same-sex marriage, the spousal privilege doesn’t apply.

Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley said he will consider the issue, which apparently hasn’t arisen before in Maryland state courts. His decision could test the limits of the general principle that a marriage valid in the place it occurred remains valid in Maryland.

Beachley said he will schedule oral arguments after studying the matter during the next month.

Recalcitrant witness Sharron Saleem Snowden, a 38-year-old behavioral therapist, said after the hearing that she and wife Deborah Antoinette “Toney” Snowden want the same rights and privileges as straight couples.

“We are expecting to have the same laws that apply to heterosexual couples apply to us,” Sharron Snowden said.

According to charging documents, Sharron called police Dec. 10 to report that Toney, a 50-year-old armored-truck driver, had pushed her and threatened her with a knife during an argument at their Williamsport home. On Jan. 5, Maryland State Police charged Toney Snowden with first- and second-degree assault and reckless endangerment.

The same-sex spousal privilege issue hasn’t arisen in Maryland courts before, said Susan Silber, immediate past president of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Bar Association of Maryland.

In court Monday, Assistant Public Defender Carl D. Somerlock gave the judge a wedding photo and a certified copy of the couple’s D.C. marriage certificate to prove they were married Aug. 11.

The District legalized same-sex marriage in March 2010. But only marriages between a man and a woman can be performed in Maryland. The General Assembly has repeatedly failed to approve same-sex marriage, including during the legislative session that ended earlier this month.

Somerlock cited a February 2010 Maryland attorney general’s opinion that out-of-state, same-sex marriages may be recognized under Maryland law. In that opinion, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler raised the question of spousal privilege but didn’t answer it, stating that other laws and the facts of a particular case must be taken into account.

However, Gansler noted that the Maryland Court of Appeals has recognized other out-of-state marriages that aren’t allowed in Maryland, including common-law marriages and a marriage between an uncle and a niece. Therefore, he wrote, Maryland’s high court “is likely to respect the law of other states and recognize a same-sex marriage contracted validly in another jurisdiction.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Leon M. Debes Jr. insisted that only a marriage between a man and a woman is recognized as valid in Maryland. Debes said that without Sharron Snowden’s testimony, the prosecution of Toney Snowden would probably fail.

Silber said a Prince George’s County case regarding whether a same-sex couple can divorce in Maryland is pending before the Court of Special Appeals. And state agencies have granted same-sex couples who were married elsewhere certain matrimonial property and parenthood rights as a result of Gansler’s opinion, she said.

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