TAMPA — A year after being denied by a judge, a lesbian couple in Tampa will be allowed to divorce, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Although Attorney General Pam Bondi asked the appellate court to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage, the court instead issued a terse opinion reversing an order by a Hillsborough Circuit judge who refused to grant a divorce to Keiba Lynn Shaw and Mariama Changamire Shaw.
“For the reasons expressed in this court’s recent opinion in Brandon-Thomas v. Brandon-Thomas ... we reverse and remand for further proceedings,” the order stated.
The order referred to another same-sex divorce case from Lee County in which the appellate court ordered in April that a divorce be considered for Danielle and Krista Brandon-Thomas. One half of that couple, Krista Brandon-Thomas, is contesting the divorce, so the appellate court sent the case back to Lee County for consideration on the merits.
Friday’s ruling was welcomed by Equality Florida, an organization that advocates for civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. “Today, the second District Court of Appeal joined the tidal wave of courts across the country who have affirmed the rights of same-sex couples to be treated equally under the law,” said Hannah Willard, the Central Florida field organizer. “As we await a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, we know this is one more message to the nine Justices that it is time to put an end to discrimination when it comes to marriage.”
The Shaws, who were married in Massachusetts, agreed to their divorce and settled all issues through a process known as collaborative divorce, asking the courts only to issue a legal declaration dissolving their marriage.
But last year, Circuit Judge Laurel M. Lee refused, citing provisions in state law and the state Constitution banning the recognition of same-sex marriages. Lee ruled she couldn’t dissolve a marriage that doesn’t legally exist in this state.
“This is a good day for equality,’’ attorney Adam Cordover, who represents Keiba Shaw, said after Friday’s ruling was announced. “Many people focus on marriage equality, but divorce equality is just as important. Now my client can move on with her life.’’
Cordover said the divorce should be finalized as soon as a judge signs the paperwork. He said the drawn-out fight to get a divorce has been tough on Keiba Shaw.
“Going through a divorce is difficult enough,’’ Cordover said. “Going through a divorce in such a public fashion through no fault of your own is worse.’’
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling within weeks about whether same-sex couples have a federal constitutional right to wed.
Although a federal judge cleared the way for same-sex marriages to be performed in Florida in January, the path to divorce has been more difficult for many, including the Shaws. Many estranged, same-sex couples have found relief in appellate courts.
In December, for example, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in South Florida, issued a ruling denying a same-sex divorce. In that case, the couple married in Iowa in 2009 and later moved to Florida. The women, Sarah Oliver and Heather Ann Stufflebeam, filed for divorce in Miami-Dade, but were denied.
That couple appealed but did not challenge the constitutionality of the state’s same-sex marriage bans. Instead, they argued that the law applied to marriages, not divorces. The 3rd DCA rejected that argument and denied the divorce. “Simply stated,” the appellate court wrote, “one cannot dissolve a marriage where there is not a marriage to dissolve.” Granting a divorce, the court said, “concedes that a valid marriage in fact exists.”
The couple were later granted a divorce after the law changed in January, according to Miami Beach attorney Elizabeth Schwartz, who handled the case.
The 3rd DCA ruling in the case came exactly a week after a Broward Circuit judge granted another same-sex couple a divorce.
“It’s hard to know how many (same-sex divorces) there have been statewide as there’s no official count,” Schwartz said. “I have finalized about 2 dozen same-sex couples’ divorces starting on the very day marriage equality came to our shores and I know other lawyers around the state have similarly been able to help couples close out a chapter of their lives and start anew.”
The Shaw case has taken a circuitous path. The 2nd DCA initially declined to rule and instead tried to pass the case to the Florida Supreme Court, asking the state’s high court to accept the matter as an issue of high public importance.
But the Supreme Court refused to take the case, and sent it back to the appellate panel. The Supreme Court’s announcement in September came the day after five cities, including St. Petersburg, Orlando and Miami Beach, asked the high court for permission to file a brief supporting the Shaws’ right to divorce.
Bondi’s office asked the 2nd DCA to hold off on ruling until after the U.S. Supreme Court issues its same-sex marriage ruling.
Asked for comment after Friday’s ruling, Bondi’s office sent a short prepared statement: “The issue of same sex marriage has been presented to the U.S. Supreme Court and we expect their decision within a month.’’