The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a St. Louis County circuit judge erred in dismissing the divorce case of two St. Louis men, ordering the lower court to again take up the case.
But the high court ruling has no broader implications on the issue of same-sex marriage as some had hoped it would.
In the St. Louis divorce case, the two men, referred to in court filings as M.S. and D.S., were married on Dec. 12, 2012, in Des Moines, Iowa. They were one of 5,900 couples who were wed in Iowa during the first 3½ years such unions were legally recognized there.
But nine months into the relationship, the couple separated. On Jan. 8, 2014, M.S. filed a petition for divorce in St. Louis County. The next month, Associate Circuit Judge John Borbonus dismissed the petition for divorce, saying that since the state does not recognize same-sex marriages, it cannot legally dissolve such a union.
Tuesday’s ruling sends the case back to St. Louis County for further review, affirming that the lower court does have legal jurisdiction to hear the case.
In doing so, the state Supreme Court “expresses no opinion as to the merits of any aspect of this case, including the constitutional or statutory authority of the circuit court to dissolve a same-sex marriage,” according to the unanimous decision.
Drey Cooley, an attorney representing M.S., said he was pleased with the decision although he said an ideal ruling would have been more broad, addressing whether a voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman is legal.
The amendment passed by a large margin in August 2004.
“Ultimately a reversal is a reversal,” Cooley said of the divorce case. Now his client and his client’s spouse can proceed with dissolving their marriage, he said.
Anthony Rothert, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said the high court ruling on Tuesday “is a good example of judicial restraint,” doing the minimum to resolve the case.
The narrow ruling is not surprising, Rothert said, given that the court on Jan. 28 put on hold ruling on a same-sex marriage case out of St. Louis.
The state Supreme Court said no action would be taken until after the U.S. Supreme Court takes up same-sex marriage, which is expected in June.
The case stems from a decision in November by St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlison. He ruled that “any same-sex couple that satisfies all the requirements for marriage under Missouri law, other than being of different sexes, is legally entitled to a marriage license.”
After the ruling, St. Louis and St. Louis County began issuing marriage licenses.
Advocates said Burlison’s ruling applied statewide, but most county officials across the state disagreed, saying they would wait until a state appeal plays out.
One other same-sex marriage case also is pending. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to begin hearing arguments in May on cases involving Missouri, Arkansas and South Dakota couples.
Two Kansas City couples who were denied marriage licenses are included in that case. A federal judge sided with the Kansas City couples, striking down the constitutional amendment excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage. But the judge also said that his decision would be stayed until “judgment is final.”
The first of the three same-sex marriage rulings in Missouri came in October. That’s when a Kansas City judge ruled that the marriages of an estimated 5,400 Missouri gay couples wed in states or countries where such relationships are legally recognized must be honored by their home state.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster chose not to appeal that decision, saying Missouri would honor the laws of other states. However a group of legislators did intervene, filing an appeal. The Missouri Supreme Court dismissed it.
The ruling Tuesday on the same-sex divorce case comes a day after Alabama became the 37th state to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses and four months before the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the controversial issue.