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Chambers v. Ormiston


    Citation. Chambers v. Ormiston, 935 A.2d 956, 2007 R.I. LEXIS 123 (R.I. Dec. 7, 2007)

    Brief Fact Summary
    Two female residents of Rhode Island were married in Massachusetts. Afterwards, they petitioned the Rhode Island Family Court for dissolution of the marriage.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law
    Rhode Island’s family court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear a petition for dissolution of a same sex marriage since the term “marriage†only referred to being between a man and a woman when the legislature created the family court in 1961.

    Facts
    Chambers (Plaintiff) and Ormiston (Defendant), residents of Rhode Island, traveled to Massachusetts in 2004 and were married in a ceremony there. In 2006, both parties petitioned the Rhode Island Family Court for a divorce. The family court then certified a question to the Rhode Island Supreme Court regarding whether the family court had subject matter jurisdiction to grant a petition for divorce in regards to same sex couples.

    Issue
    Does Rhode Island’s family court have subject matter jurisdiction to hear a petition for dissolution of a same sex marriage since the term “marriage†only referred to being between a man and a woman when the legislature created the family court in 1961?

    Held
    (Robinson, J.) No. Rhode Island’s family court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear a petition for dissolution of a same sex marriage since the term “marriage†only referred to being between a man and a woman when the legislature created the family court in 1961. To determine whether the family court has power to hear a divorce petition of a same sex couple, validly married in Massachusetts, the court must review the definition of the term “marriage†as it was defined when the legislature created the family court in 1961. G.L. 1956 Section 8-10-3(a) provides the family court to hear “all petitions for divorce from the bond of marriage.†In determining the intent of the legislature, it is appropriate to review contemporaneous dictionaries. In 1961, most dictionaries regarded marriage as between one man and one woman. The legislature has not done anything since 1961 to change that definition. And so, the family court does not have jurisdiction to hear a petition for divorce for a same sex couple. If there is to be a remedy in this case, it should come from the legislature, not the courts. Certified question is answered in the negative.

    Dissent
    (Suttell, J.) The court’s opinion is correct in that the state legislature and not the courts should determine legal recognition of same-sex marriages in Rhode Island. However, the validity of the parties’ marriage in this case is not in dispute and is not challenged by either party. There is no question the parties were married legally in Massachusetts. Nothing exists in the 1961 statute that would prevent the family court from hearing their divorce petition. The question here is whether the family court may hear a divorce petition from a couple married validly in another state, not whether same-sex couples may marry in Rhode Island under the marriage laws of this state. Since the couple is domiciled in Rhode Island, this is the only forum where they may seek a divorce.

    Discussion
    The Rhode Island Supreme Court decided three to two in this case. The one point all justices agreed on was that the decision to allow same-sex couples to marry in Rhode Island should come from the state legislature. Since then, at least seven different bills have been entered in the Rhode Island state legislature to recognize either same-sex marriage or civil unions. As of July 2010, none of those bills had passed.


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