BY STEVE ROTHAUS
Furious that Miami-Dade County Clerk Harvey Ruvin isn't "vigorously" defending Florida's gay marriage ban, three conservative political groups Wednesday asked a circuit judge to let them do it themselves.
"Harvey’s attorneys are not making him look very good," said Eladio Jose Armesto, chairman of the Florida Democratic League. "It would be a grave mistake on Harvey’s part not to vigorously defend the Florida Constitution in which he took an oath to uphold, as well as to defend the rights of Florida voters."
In January, six same-sex couples sued Ruvin after his office denied each pair a marriage license.
The couples are Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello of Coconut Grove; Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez and David Price of Davie; Vanessa and Melanie Alenier of Hollywood; Todd and Jeff Delmay of Hollywood; Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber of Plantation; and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz of Miami. Equality Florida Institute is also a plaintiff.
The plaintiffs “allege that Florida’s categorical exclusion of all same-sex couples from marriage deny same-sex couples, including the plaintiff couples, and their families the fundamental rights, dignity, and equality guaranteed to all persons by the United States Constitution.”
Last week, Ruvin's lawyers requested that Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel suspend the lawsuit until after some similar federal case is decided in the future. Tuesday night, the lawyers dropped the request and the state trial will continue.
"By dropping the motion to abate, the clerk has essentially lifted all roadblocks with the action proceeding forward," said attorney Horatio Mihet of Liberty Counsel, which represents Florida Democratic League, Florida Family Action and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE).
Clerk's counsel Eileen Mehta told Zabel at the May 6 hearing, "Our position is that Harvey Ruvin is a neutral party in this case. He is not adverse to the plaintiffs. He is not antagonistic to the plaintiffs."
That's why conservative activists, who in 2008 championed a statewide constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, are seeking to join the case.
"Now the clerk is on the record saying he cannot and will not defend the law," Mihet said. "The motion to abate is withdrawn so the action can proceed in the absence of the intervenors who want to come in and defend the law."
Plaintiff's attorney Mary Meeks said Florida is sufficiently defending itself in the lawsuit.
"The clerk is a state defendant. It is an agent of the state. He is defending this suit," she said. "The attorney general of the state of Florida was properly noticed with this lawsuit and has been provided with every pleading that has been filed in this lawsuit. She has a statutory right to intervene any time she wishes to."
Armesto said conservative voters' rights "are being denied" by those who want to end the gay ban.
"This incendiary lawsuit is an assault against democracy that should have been dismissed immediately upon reaching the judge’s desk," he told the Miami Herald. "The Constitution, the rule of law and voter rights are not negotiable. The people of this state will not tolerate having their Constitutional rights violated in such an infamous manner."
Plaintiff Jorge Isaias Diaz said he "welcomes the debate" about marriage, but that he and the others who can't wed in Florida are the ones hurt by the law.
"I’m part of the group that is ignored, that is harmed, that doesn’t have the same rights and benefits that everyone else has, certainly on that side of the room," he said, referring to the gay-ban supporters. "We have no intention of changing their rights or obligations or protections are. All we want are to have the same chance to have our own."
Zabel said Wednesday she will decide soon whether to allow the conservative groups to join as defendants.
In late February and early March, nine other same-sex couples married out of state and gay-rights group SAVE sued Florida in federal court to recognize those marriages. Also, a couple in that suit is fighting to marry in Florida. The cases have been joined and will be heard by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee.
Hinkle recently denied the conservatives a similar request to join that case as defendants.
Two weeks ago, the ACLU of Florida amended its case to include a Fort Myers woman whose wife died in March.
And in April, a male couple in Key West sued Monroe County Clerk Amy Heavilin for the right to marry. That case mirrors the one in Miami-Dade.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Section 3 of the 1995 federal Defense of Marriage Act, a provision that prevented the U.S. government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples. It did not address Section 2 — the portion that allows states including Florida to not recognize legal same-sex unions. Seventeen states, including California, Iowa, Massachusetts and New York, along with the District of Columbia, now marry gay and lesbian couples.
This week, judges in Arkansas and Idaho struck down those states' gay marriage bans.