Between vacations and Judge Susan Bolton's recent SB 1070 decision, another important judicial decision was made in Arizona—and, no, this isn't an example of "judicial activism."
Like Bolton's decision on SB 1070, U.S. District Court Judge John W. Sedwick made the right and legal ruling when he granted Lambda Legal's request for a preliminary injuction blocking the state's elimination of domestic-partner benefits for gay and lesbian state employees.
Lambda Legal's July 23 press release regarding the decision:
U.S. District Court Judge John W. Sedwick today granted Lambda Legal's request for a preliminary injunction blocking the elimination of domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian Arizona State employees. The judge also substantially denied a motion to dismiss the case by State's Attorney Charles Grube, ordering that the case proceed on the merits.
Lambda Legal represents ten state employees — including from the Arizona Highway Patrol, the State Department of Game and Fish, and state universities — who rely on health benefits from their employers to safeguard their families' health, as heterosexual workers do.
Sedwick's ruling rejects claims by the state that the elimination of benefits will not harm the families of gay and lesbian employees because they may still be able to obtain insurance privately, through Medicaid or via the employers of the non-public employee partner. "Even assuming that is true," Sedwick writes, citing a 9th Circuit Court ruling in Lambda Legal's ongoing case In re Golinski, "the Ninth Circuit has recognized there is 'an inherent inequality' in allowing some employees to participate fully in the State's health plan, while expecting other employees to rely on other sources, such as private insurance or Medicaid. 'This back of the bus' treatment relegates plaintiffs to a second-class status by imposing inferior workplace treatment on them, inflicting serious constitutional and dignitary harms that after-the-fact damages cannot adequately address."
"This injunction removes the sword that's been hanging over the heads of hundreds of state workers and their families," said Tara Borelli, the Lambda Legal staff attorney who argued the case on June 28th. "We're pleased Judge Sedwick has recognized that this is a matter of equal pay for equal work, and that eliminating benefits for Arizona's gay and lesbian state employees would hurt real families."
Sedwick also rejected the State's claims that maintaining the same benefits for gay employees that their heterosexual co-workers will continue to receive would endanger other state services: "The State's argument, which is not supported by any evidence, is speculative at best and discriminatory at worst. Contrary to the State's suggestion, it is not equitable to lay the burden of the State's budgetary shortfall on homosexual employees, any more than on any other distinct class, such as employees with green eyes or red hair."
Arizona lawmakers included a provision eliminating domestic partner health benefits for gay state employees as part of a last-minute budget deal signed by Governor Jan Brewer last September, while retaining spousal health benefits for heterosexual workers. Today's injunction barring enforcement of the insurance cut-off will take effect in ten days. The State can appeal the ruling immediately to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, or proceed to defend the discriminatory budget provision on the merits in the District Court.
Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Tara Borelli argued the case, with Jennifer C. Pizer of Lambda Legal, and Daniel C. Barr, Rhonda L. Barnes and Kirstin T. Eidenbach of the law firm of Perkins, Coie, Brown & Bain P.A. as co-counsel.