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Another state’s civil union qualifies for Maryland divorce, court says

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland divorce law can tear asunder a same-sex civil union that another state has brought together, Maryland’s second-highest court has ruled.

In a reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said Maryland will regard a civil union from another state as a marriage for the purpose of applying Maryland’s divorce law – including the statute’s available awards of alimony and equitable distribution of property.

The court rendered its reported decision March 2 in overturning a Montgomery County Circuit Court ruling that divorce was not available to a couple that entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2003 but never married, even after they moved to Maryland.

The Court of Special Appeals said a formal marriage is not necessary for a divorce in the case of a civil union that, like Vermont’s, is the functional equivalent of marriage in that it provide couples “all the same benefits, protections, and responsibilities … as are granted to spouses in a civil marriage.”

The court’s ruling was a victory for Scott Sherman, who filed for divorce from Martin Rouse in 2018 and is seeking alimony and an equitable distribution of property. Rouse, the couple’s primary wage earner, argued unsuccessfully through counsel that divorce is not available because he and Sherman never married.

“The court’s decision in this case has closed a gap in Maryland with respect to marriage equality,” Miriam Sievers, Sherman’s appellate counsel, stated in an email Friday. “The holding makes clear that Maryland courts will recognize the spousal relationship of parties to a Vermont civil union, including applying Maryland’s Family Law Article for the purposes of adjudicating a divorce in the same manner prescribed for married couples in Maryland.”

Sievers is with Amos & Muffoletto LLC in Ellicott City.

Rouse’s appellate attorney, Heather McCabe, did not return a telephone message Friday afternoon seeking comment on the decision and any plans to seek review by the Maryland Court of Appeals. McCabe is with McCabe Russell PA in Rockville.

Several gay-rights groups filed a joint brief with the Court of Special Appeals in support of Sherman’s position that Maryland divorce law applies to the dissolution of his Vermont civil union. These groups are Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders and FreeState Justice Inc.

Many states, like Vermont, provided same-sex couples the option of civil unions in the years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

Same-sex marriage has been available by statute in Maryland since 2013. In addition, Maryland began recognizing same-sex marriages performed legally in other states in 2012 with the Court of Appeals’ ruling in Port v. Cowan.

In Port, the Court of Appeals called recognition of a California marriage neither contrary to nor repugnant to Maryland law or public policy, which at the time provided same-sex couples with many of the rights afforded to husbands and wives.

That same recognition, or “comity,” should be afforded to a civil union, the Court of Special Appeals ruled.

“Mr. Sherman points out that the General Assembly of Maryland has not declared the recognition of civil unions to be contrary or repugnant to the public policy of Maryland,” Judge Timothy E. Meredith wrote for the court. “And, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell, we perceive no reason the General Assembly would take a different position with respect to civil unions.”

Meredith was joined in the opinion by Judges Andrea M. Leahy and Dan Friedman.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Scott Sherman v. Martin Rouse, No.2632, September Term 2018 and No. 578, September Term 2019.


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