A judge in Tennessee has cited the recent US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruling on gay marriage as one of the reasons he refused to grant a couple’s divorce.
Hamilton County judge Jeffrey Atherton made his decision when considering the divorce proceedings of Thomas and Pamela Bumgardner, who are both in their sixties. They had been married since 2002, had no children and were seeking divorce due to irreconcilable differences.
In his ruling, Atherton wrote:
“The conclusion reached by this Court is that Tennesseans have been deemed by the U.S. Supreme Court to be incompetent to define and address such keystone/central institutions such as marriage, and thereby, at minimum, contested divorces.”
He continued that SCOTUS had to clarify “when a marriage is no longer a marriage.”
Atherton’s ruling has been condemned by many legal commentators. Vanderbilt University constitutional law professor Jim Blumstein said he felt Atherton was “expressing his political disagreement” with the SCOTUS ruling.
Penny White, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, and former member of the Tennessee Supreme Court, provided a written statement on the issue. She wrote that “State court judges, regardless of their personal points of view, must defer to the Supreme Court’s constitutional interpretation.”
This case comes on the heels of several instances where individuals have used their positions in public office to make their opinions on the landmark SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage known. The most high profile of these is Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis who has refused to issue marriage licences on religious grounds.
Aside from the judge’s comments on the SCOTUS ruling, he also judged that neither party had carried out their legal burden of proof of entitlement to a divorce. Although this was not a contested divorce, because Tennessee does not have a ‘no fault’ approach to divorce, the reasons for divorce have to be recognised by state statutes. In addition to irreconcilable differences, the Bumgardner’s divorce petition was also based on inappropriate marital conduct, which the judge said wasn’t proved. The judge ruled that he did not believe that the marriage was “irretrievably broken”.
Because the Bumgardner’s petition was denied by the court, they will have to provide different reasons which are recognised in Tennessee law if they want to re-file for divorce.
Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel via Flickr