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Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Ruvin asks judge to slow couples' gay marriage suit until other cases settled

BY STEVE ROTHAUS
srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel said Tuesday she would decide “in the next week or so” whether to suspend a local gay-marriage lawsuit until after some similar federal case is decided in the future.

In January, six same-sex couples sued Miami-Dade County Clerk Harvey Ruvin after his office wouldn’t issue them marriage licenses.

Ruvin’s lawyers had originally asked Zabel to suspend the case indefintely. On Tuesday, they changed their wording.

“We may have used the word ‘abate’ a bit inartfully” clerk counsel Eileen Mehta told Zabel. “We are not looking to abate in terms of waiting until a decision in the pending federal case. Perhaps a motion to stay might have been a better choice of words. Really, your honor, all we are looking for is for the court to have an opportunity to benefit from the advocacy of the state in those cases.”

Lawyers representing the six couples asked Zabel to move ahead and quickly resolve the suit in their favor.

“The clerk is now shifting the position and saying hold off, and get the benefit of all these other cases,” Carlton Fields Jorden Burt attorney Jeffrey Michael Cohen told Zabel. “Your honor, there are 18 or 20 cases in federal courts all around the country raising these particular issues. It’s not appropriate for any court to hold off on the responsibility of deciding cases as important as this one. It involves peoples lives.”

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.”

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 consolidated and will be heard by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee. Last week, 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.

The Supreme Court decision led to lawsuits throughout the nation, including those in Florida, where voters in 2008 amended the state constitution to ban gay marriages and civil unions.

Zabel, who as a litigator specialized in family law, is married to former North Miami Beach Mayor Myron Rosner. She has been a circuit judge since 2003 and was assigned the Miami-Dade case in January.

Since mid-April, the Christian Family Coalition of Florida has sent several emails to members asking them to write to Zabel that she should grant the postponement.

“If Circuit Court Judge Sara [sic] Zabel denies the motion to abate then in all likelihood she intends to strike down the Florida Marriage Protection Act,” writes the coalition.

About 40 people against the plaintiff's lawsuit attended the hearing.

"We’re here to defend the constitution and the voters’ rights," said Max Tovar, who distributed pro-abatement stickers to the others. "It’s very scary that if the judge defies the constitution and the voters’ rights on this issue, they could pretty much defy the constitution on any other issue. That would be totally un-American, anti-democratic and violate the basic core of the foundation of this nation."

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