State Supreme Court rules same-sex couples entitled to death benefits

Suzanna Caldwell
Debbie Harris, pictured here on July 31, 2013, walks along the beach where she and her partner Kerry Fadely used to walk their dog. The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday overturned a decision by the Alaska Workers Compensation Board that denied death benefits to Harris after Fadely was shot and killed at her workplace. Bill Roth

The Alaska Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to benefits when their partner dies, despite a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

In an opinion Friday, the state’s high court overturned a decision by the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board that denied death benefits to Deborah Harris after the death of her partner, Kerry Fadely.

Under state statute, only “widowers and widows” are eligible for the benefits, according to the compensation board, which acts independently from the state as a quasi-judicial body overseeing workers’ compensation claims. The board found that since widows and widowers are only the product of marriage, which is illegal for same-sex couples in the Alaska, they denied Harris the benefits.

The court found that because the exclusion lacks “fair and substantial relationship to the purpose of the statute,” the definition violates the surviving partner’s right to equal protection under the law.

Fadely and Harris had been together in a committed, exclusive and financially interdependent relationship for 10 years. They lived together, shared credit cards and raised children together.

But after a disgruntled employee killed Fadely at her job at the Millennium Hotel in 2011, Harris argued she was seen in the eyes of the state as little more than a friend when she went to claim partner death benefits. The benefits, generally provided by insurance companies, serve as a safety net to help families deal with the sudden loss of a family member. After Fadely’s death, Harris was forced to move out of their shared home and deal with a sudden onslaught of bills they shared together.

Lambda Legal attorney Peter Renn, who brought the case to the court, said Harris was out of cellphone range Friday and unavailable for comment.

Renn said the ruling is narrow and applies only to same-sex partners seeking death benefits and does not make any sort of judgment affecting the Alaska same-sex marriage ban. However, he said, coupled with other recent court decisions, this decision speaks volumes, not just in Alaska but also across the nation.

“It seems like barriers the government have set up to wall off same-sex couples from basic protections are crumbling fast and furious everywhere,” Renn said. “Alaska is another piece of data that supports that point.”

The court’s decision marks the latest Alaska Supreme Court ruling upholding rights for same-sex couples under the equal protection clause. Earlier this year the court found the state cannot deny property tax exemptions to same-sex couples simply because they cannot marry legally.

The marriage ban itself is being challenged. In May, a group of Alaskans filed suit against the state over the Alaska constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between “one man and one woman.”

Caitlin Shortell, the Anchorage attorney representing the five couples challenging the marriage ban, praised the Alaska court’s decision Friday, although she said the ruling will not affect how a federal judge will handle her clients’ case.

She noted the Alaska court found that even under minimal scrutiny -- not the heightened, more intense level of scrutiny that often applies to same-sex marriage cases -- the law didn’t pass muster.

“That’s a wonderful statement in favor of equal protection,” she said.

Renn noted the Alaska Department of Law had a chance to intervene in Harris’ case but didn’t.

“I don’t blame them,” he said. “It’s an indefensible law.”

Anchorage attorney Eric Croft was co-counsel in the case. He also served in the Alaska House of Representatives that in 1998 voted to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Croft was among the minority voting against the ban.

Croft said the U.S. is currently facing a “strange time in equal rights.” Public opinion and the courts -- which have been overturning marriage bans across the nation on a regular basis -- are ahead of the public process when it comes to dealing with the issue. The only thing that’s behind, he said, is legislation.

Croft said when he voted on the ban in 1998 he told lawmakers that they would be “embarrassed” about their decision in about 20 or 50 years.

“I think that’s still right,” he said. “I just may not have had the numbers right.”