ALBANY, NY - A state Supreme Court judge in Livingston County has ruled that a lawsuit challenging the state's same-sex marriage law can proceed.
The judge raised questions about whether the June vote to legalize same-sex marriage violated the state's open meetings law. The decision, dated Nov. 18 by Judge Robert Wiggins, took issue with a variety of procedural steps taken by the Senate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo when the June 24 vote was held. The measure passed 33-29, and Cuomo quickly signed it into law.
Wiggins, a Republican judge in the rural county outside Rochester, said the Monroe County-based group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms presented enough evidence that the open meetings law may have been violated to let the case continue. The state has sought to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in late July.
"The Court must consider allegations by plaintiff as true. Considering plaintiff's allegations, and without deciding matter at this time, the court feels that is a justiciable issue presented whether there was a violation of the Open Meetings Law," Wiggins wrote in his decision.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a pro-life group, has fought the same-sex marriage law. New York became the sixth and largest state to let gay couples marry. The law took effect July 24.
The group alleges that Cuomo and Senate Republicans violated the open meetings law by holding closed-door conferences to discuss the bill. The lawsuit also contends that the Senate didn't follow procedures that require a bill to be sent to appropriate committees before a vote on the Senate floor.
Legislative conferences are always held behind closed doors, and state law exempts political caucuses, committees and conferences from the open meetings law. Also, governors have to ability to bypass a three-day waiting period for a new bill to be voted on by the Legislature by issuing "a message of necessity" -- which was the case for the same-sex marriage vote.
Wiggins criticized the practices. But Wiggins said it was not in his purview to rule on the legality of those procedures.
"Logically and clearly this cite by the governor is disingenuous," Wiggins wrote. "The review of such concept altering legislation for three days after generations of existing definitions would not so damage same-sex couples as to necessitate an avoidance of rules meant to ensure full review and discussion prior to any vote."
The Rev. Jason McGuire, the group's executive director who filed the lawsuit in his home county of Livingston, praised the judge's ruling. There was no immediate comment from state officials.
"I'm grateful that Judge Wiggins carefully weighed the arguments and agreed that this case has sufficient merit to move forward," McGuire said in a statement.
McGuire said the lawyers for the sides will now set up meetings to discuss the continuation of the case before Wiggins.
McGuire, colleague Duane Motley and Orthodox rabbi Nathaniel Leiter, of the Monsey, Rockland County-based Torah Jews for Decency, are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They are being represented by the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.,-based group that provides pro bono legal assistance to conservative religious groups.
The lawsuit was filed against the Senate, the state Health Department and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who represents the state when it is sued.
By JOSEPH SPECTOR, Gannett Albany Bureau Chief