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Texas Supreme Court Permits Same-Sex Divorce On Limited Procedural Grounds

On June 19, 2015, in Texas v. Naylor, et al., Case No. 11-0114, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the State of Texas could not intervene to prevent the divorce of a same-sex couple legally married in Massachusetts. However, the ruling was decided on limited procedural grounds; therefore, it is unlikely to represent strong precedent for future actions related to defining "marriage" under Texas law. Indeed, the decision was rendered by a deeply divided Court.

In 2004, Texas residents Angelique Naylor and Sabina Daly married in Massachusetts. A number of years later, Naylor filed for divorce in Travis County, Texas. After a two day hearing on the matter, the trial court granted, in effect, a divorce between the same-sex couple. Several lawyers from the Texas Attorney General's Office were present during the hearing; however, they elected not to formally participate in the hearing. After the trial court entered its ruling, the State of Texas filed a petition to intervene in an effort to oppose the Original Petition for Divorce filed by Naylor. The State sought to "defend the constitutionality of Texas and federal laws that limit divorce actions to persons of the opposite sex who are married to one another." Further, the State argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The trial court and intermediate appellate court held that the intervention came too late, as the State did not seek to intervene until after the trial court had granted the divorce. Accordingly, the State appealed the matter to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts' rulings and held that the State lacked standing to appeal the trial court's judgment because it waited too long before seeking to intervene in the case. The Texas Supreme Court noted that the State did not file a petition in intervention until after the trial court had announced its judgment. The State had lawyers present at the hearing on the matter and could have intervened prior to the rendition of a judgment. The Texas Supreme Court held that the State simply intervened too late. Importantly, this decision was decided on purely procedural grounds. The Texas Supreme Court did not issue any substantive rulings regarding the scope of marriage within the State, nor did it set clear precedent for allowing divorce proceedings in same-sex marriages going forward.

This decision was rendered shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court is set to address the issue of same-sex marriage. Only eleven (11) cases remain during the Supreme Court's current session, with the Obergefell v. Hodges case set to address the legality of same-sex marriage. This decision could have wide-ranging implications for employers. It is unclear how the U.S. Supreme Court will address this issue, but many legal scholars anticipate a sharply divided Supreme Court will potentially hold that the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal treatment for gay individuals, and, thus, due process rights prohibit states from banning same-sex marriages.

Please look for future updates from Law in the Workplace on this issue.