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Montana's Supreme Court upheld a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit brought by same-sex couples seeking equal access to state protections and benefits, such as those provided under workers compensation laws.
But the ruling in Jan Donaldson v. State of Montana allows the plaintiffs to return to the lower court to amend their complaint.
The high court's majority opinion describes the plaintiffs as “individuals from a variety of professional backgrounds who are in committed same-sex relationships.” In 2010, they sued the State of Montana, complaining that they are denied protections and benefits provided to heterosexual couples married under state law.
They are seeking things such as a right to workers comp survivor benefits, tax privileges afforded to married couples, and the right to make health care decisions.
But a district court denied the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grated a state motion to dismiss. The court said the plaintiffs did not seek a declaration that specific statutes are unconstitutional, but rather they wanted the court to give Montana's legislature direction on the matter.
The trial court said that would be an inappropriate exercise of judicial power.
On Monday, 4 of 7 justices ruled the district court did not abuse its discretion. They said “the plaintiffs chose to pursue an overly broad request for a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, without developing a factual record in the district court and without identifying a specific statute or statutes that impose the discrimination they allege.”
The three dissenters indicated they would grant the relief sought by the plaintiffs and would enter a declaratory judgment that Montana law imposes a discriminatory structure.
“Plaintiffs assert, and rightly so, that their government may not single out unpopular groups for disfavored treatment, as the State of Montana has done here,” Justice James C. Nelson wrote in a dissent. “Shockingly, this court refuses to uphold this most basic principle of constitutional law.”