It ain't over 

Eyes on the prize

The American Civil Liberties Union says it will appeal last week's decision by a Helena judge which dismissed a lawsuit that sought domestic partnership benefits for homosexual couples.

"We're certainly disappointed by the decision, but we knew that we would be in it for the long haul," ACLU Montana Legal Director Betsy Griffing says. "We do believe that this is an issue that needs to be decided by the Montana Supreme Court."

The suit, Donaldson and Guggenheim v. State of Montana, filed on behalf of six same-sex couples last year in Helena District Court, asserts that gay people are constitutionally entitled to the same privileges afforded to married people. It targets tax breaks, inheritance rights, and the power to make financial and health decisions for domestic partners. The plaintiffs asked the court to order the Montana Legislature to create a mechanism by which same-sex couples could enjoy those benefits.

The Montana Department of Justice argued against the case, saying the debate over benefits belongs in the legislature, and that a constitutional initiative passed by Montana voters in 2004 defining marriage as a union between a man and woman prevents the state from crafting the legal protections sought by the plaintiffs. "When the constitutionality of our laws and statutes are challenged, the state has a responsibility to defend them," says Montana DOJ Spokesman Kevin O'Brien. "We fulfilled that role in this case, just as we would in any constitutional challenge."

Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said the 2004 marriage amendment influenced his decision to dismiss the case, but that wasn't the primary basis for his judgment. Sherlock's main legal rationale centers on the contention that creating the legal mechanism sought by the plaintiffs would require him to direct the legislature to alter numerous state laws and, therefore, would constitute a judicial overstep. "For this court to direct the legislature to enact a law that would impact an unknown number of statutes would launch this court into a roiling maelstrom of policy issues without a constitutional compass," he said.

The ACLU has 60 days from Sherlock's April 19 decision to file its appeal.

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