Cloaking a challenge to Missouri's marriage amendment with a challenge for survivor benefits.

Author:Harner, Benjamin S.
Position:LAW SUMMARY
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    On Christmas day of 2009, the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) tragically lost trooper Dennis Engelhard. Engelhard was attending to a minor accident on Interstate 44 near Eureka, Missouri, when a vehicle lost control and struck and killed him. (1) In the days immediately following his death, little, if any, thought would be given to the enormous implications that this loss would have on Missouri state law, and even less thought would be given to the possibility that Engelhard's death might become the backdrop for another layer of argument surrounding the ongoing same-sex marriage debate throughout the country. Appropriately, the immediate focus following Engelhard's death was on the tragedy that surrounds losing one who so bravely serves the public. His obituary praised him for his service and noted that Governor Jay Nixon ordered flags at all state buildings be flown at half-staff in Engelhard's honor. (2)

    Following the death of an officer of the law, concern often shifts to the officer's surviving family and loved ones with the hope that they will be provided for following their tragic loss. However, this situation was different. There was more to this story than Engelhard's obituary, which stated that his parents and brother survived him and that he was single with no children. (3) Nowhere in his obituary did it mention that Engelhard was gay or that he had been in a committed same-sex relationship with Kelly Glossip for fifteen years. (4) Despite the couple's relationship, it soon became clear that under Missouri law, Glossip was ineligible to receive the same benefits that the spouse of a married, heterosexual officer receives following the loss of his or her loved one.

    On August 5, 2010, Glossip formally sought survivor benefits by filing a Survivor Application with the Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees' Retirement System (MPERS). (5) Shortly thereafter, MPERS sent a letter to Glossip's attorney denying Glossip's claim for survivor benefits under Missouri Revised Statutes section 104.140. (6) This section provides that if an employee's death "was a natural and proximate result of a personal injury or disease arising out of and in the course of the member's actual performance of duty as an employee, then the minimum benefit to such member's surviving spouse ... shall be fifty percent of the member's final average compensation." (7) The denial letter cited Missouri Revised Statutes section 104.012, which provides that for purposes of the retirement systems administered under Chapter 104, "spouse" refers only to an individual in a marriage between a man and a woman. (8) MPERS also referenced Missouri Revised Statutes section 451.022, Missouri's general statute providing that same-sex marriage is not recognized for any purpose. (9) On October 14, 2010, Glossip appealed the MPERS Executive Director's denial. (10) The MPERS Board of Trustees met a month later and upheld the denial. (11)

    Glossip then brought an action against MPERS in the Circuit Court of Cole County. (12) The arguments advanced by both Glossip and MPERS have been consistent throughout the litigation. (13) Since the onset of this lawsuit, Glossip has contended that he is not challenging Missouri's Marriage Amendment that bans gay marriage. (14) Instead, he is "simply seek[ing] the same survivor benefit that [Missouri] has chosen to offer only different-sex, surviving partners of MSHP employees." (15) Glossip focused his arguments on the idea that although Missouri only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman, the constitutional protections shared by all Missourians--equal protection, (16) due process, (17) and governance by general, rather than special, laws (18)--applied to him and had been violated. (19)

    This Law Summary focuses on Glossip's ongoing challenge to receive survivor benefits. The case not only implicates the Missouri Constitution's equal protection and due process clauses, but it is also controversial because it involves the same-sex marriage issues that have stirred national debate for quite some time. This Law Summary will discuss each of these issues. Specifically, Part II provides the legal background for Missouri's equal protection and substantive due process clauses and provides case law pertaining to situations similar to Glossip's that have arisen in other states. Part III provides a more in-depth background of Glossip's lawsuit, focusing on the arguments advanced by both Glossip and MPERS. Part IV provides discussion and analysis of the arguments and the case in general. Part V concludes that Missouri courts should uphold the denial of benefits and rule in favor of MPERS.

  2. LEGAL BACKGROUND

    This Part of the Law Summary will provide the legal background needed to fully understand the arguments made by Glossip and MPERS. First, it details the Missouri Constitution's equal protection and substantive due process clauses. Next, it provides a brief summary and history of legal arguments used when subjecting a challenged statute to heightened scrutiny. It then looks at the approach used in reviewing laws that have been enacted on the basis of animosity toward a group of individuals. Finally, this Part will provide a look at case law from states that have been presented with challenges to statutes similar to Missouri Revised Statutes section 104.140.

    1. Missouri's Equal Protection Clause

      The Missouri Constitution provides that "all persons are created equal and are entitled to equal rights and opportunity under the law[.]" (20) Missouri's equal protection clause is "coextensive" with the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. (21) That is, the Missouri Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment provide individuals with the same protections. (22) Specifically, Missouri has long recognized that its clause provides "equal security or burden under the laws to every one similarly situated; and that no person or class of persons shall be denied the same protection of the laws which is enjoyed by other persons or classes of persons in the same place and under like circumstances." (23) The Supreme Court of Missouri engages in a two-part analysis in deciding whether a statute violates the equal protection clause:

      The first step is to determine whether the classification operates to the disadvantage of some suspect class or impinges upon a fundamental right explicitly or implicitly protected by the Constitution. If so, the classification is subject to strict scrutiny and this [c]ourt must determine whether it is necessary to accomplish a compelling state interest. If not, review is limited to determining whether the classification is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. (24) Concerning the initial step, the existence of a suspect classification is apparent "where a group of persons is legally categorized and the resulting class is 'saddled with such disabilities, or subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment, or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process.'" (25) Examples of such suspect classifications include those "based upon race, national origin or illegitimacy[*]" (26) Alternatively, if a plaintiff claims an equal protection violation for the denial of a fundamental right, he or she must identify a right that is either "explicitly or implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution," (27) such as the right to free speech, to vote, to travel interstate, or to some other basic liberty. (28)

      Importantly, Missouri has found that most classifications do not disadvantage a suspect class or impinge on a fundamental right. (29) Such classifications are analyzed under the rational basis standard and withstand a constitutional attack "if any state of facts can be reasonably conceived that would justify [the law]." (30) Statutes that only affect economic interests, for example, do not implicate fundamental rights and thus receive rational basis scrutiny. (31) For such statutes, there is "a presumption of rationality that can only be over come by a clear showing of arbitrariness and irrationality." (32) The individual attacking the classification has the burden of demonstrating that it is irrational and purely arbitrary. (33) Along these lines, there is no fundamental right to collect survivorship benefits or benefit from a retirement system by virtue of one's relationship with a retirement system member. (34) Moreover, when applying rational basis review, Missouri courts do not question the social or economic policies underlying a statute. (35)

    2. Missouri's Substantive Due Process Clause

      The Missouri Constitution also provides "[t]hat no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law." (36) As with Missouri's equal protection clause, the Supreme Court of Missouri has held that the due process clauses of the Missouri Constitution and the United States Constitution are coextensive. (37) Concerning legislative action, "due process protects fundamental rights and liberties that are 'deeply rooted in this Nation's history and traditions,' and 'implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.'" (38) State action that "deprives one of life, liberty or property [must] be rationally related to a legitimate state interest" in order to satisfy substantive due process. (39) The Supreme Court of the United States has recognized fundamental rights or liberty interests for purposes of substantive due process in areas such as family autonomy, (40) the right to privacy, (41) reproductive autonomy, (42) and medical care decisions. (43) As with fundamental rights and suspect classes under the equal protection clause, statutes affecting fundamental rights under the substantive due process clause receive strict scrutiny. (44) In sum, doctrine commands that a substantive rule of law be invalidated "if it impinges on liberty interests...

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