Monday, May 24, 1999

Victory for gay rights
in Canadian high court

Bullet The issue: The Supreme Court of Canada struck down a heterosexual definition of "spouse."
Bullet Our view: The decision could affect the thinking of Americans on same-sex marriage.

ADVOCATES of equal rights for homosexual couples suffered a major setback last November when Hawaii voters approved a constitutional amendment granting the Legislature authority to restrict marriage to persons of opposite sex. That vote may have nullified attempts to win recognition for homosexual marriage in Hawaii through the courts.

It's a different story in Canada, where the Supreme Court struck down a heterosexual definition of "spouse." The landmark decision last week could rewrite Canada's law books to give legal rights to same-sex couples.

The ruling, which centered on the case of an Ontario woman seeking financial support from her former female partner, does not address the issue of gay marriages. But by deciding that the heterosexual definition of spouse is unconstitutional, the court may have given same-sex partners all the legal benefits of a common-law marriage.

The court gave Ontario six months to amend its laws, noting that dozens of its laws use the heterosexual definition. The federal government and other provinces will also have to amend their laws to conform with the ruling or face lawsuits.

The case began when a Toronto woman discovered she couldn't seek alimony from her ex-partner because Ontario law defined a spouse as someone of the opposite sex.

She sued to have the definition struck down and two lower courts agreed with her.

When a Conservative government took over in Ontario in 1995, it appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The high court backed the lower courts, saying, "It is clear that the human dignity of individuals in same-sex relationships is violated by the definition of 'spouse'."

In a related decision in December, an appeals court in Oregon ruled that partners of lesbian employees are entitled to the same benefits given spouses of heterosexual employees.

In Hawaii, Circuit Judge Kevin Chang ruled that the state had failed to put forth a compelling reason why same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry. The case, brought by two homosexual couples, is now before the state Supreme Court. The approval of the constitutional amendment, which came in reaction to Judge Chang's ruling, could be the determining factor in the court's decision.

Dan Foley, an attorney for couples seeking same-sex marriage in Hawaii, said it isn't clear whether the Canadian decision will have an impact on the issue here. The decision has no legal effect outside Canada, but it could influence the thinking of American judges, legislators and voters.

Foley called it "a landmark decision for the Western world." John Fisher of EGALE, a Canadian gay rights group, said, "The courts, governments and, I think, public opinion are converging on a point where it's recognized that lesbians and gays are entitled to basic equality -- no more, no less."

The Canadian decision is certainly a major step toward equal treatment for gays.

Despite the overwhelming vote last year rejecting homosexual marriage, in time Hawaii may come to accept it.

Freshman senators
caused AG’s ouster

Bullet The issue: The Senate's rejection of Margery Bronster's nomination for a second term as attorney general
Bullet Our view: Five freshman Democratic senators disappointed those who expected them to be a force for reform.

WHEN Margery Bronster addressed the Honolulu Rotary Club last week, she received two standing ovations for having achieved the removal of the Bishop Estate trustees in her role as attorney general. She told the Rotarians that dissident trustee Oswald Stender had come to her with complaints about the actions of his colleagues and that meeting initiated her investigation.

Bronster said Stender warned her that the probe might cost her her job. It did, as Bronster's confirmation to a second term as attorney general was rejected by the Senate. The reaction to that vote was outrage. Bronster instantly became a martyr to the cause of reform.

Crucial to her ouster were the votes of five Democratic freshman senators -- Jan Buen, David Matsuura, Colleen Hanabusa, Jonathan Chun and Bob Nakata -- who some thought would shake up the Democratic establishment. Instead they voted for the status quo, punishing someone who was trying to clean up perhaps the most shameful mess in Hawaii political history.

Only one of the six new senators -- Lorraine Inouye, also a Democrat -- had the good sense and regard for the public welfare to vote to confirm Bronster, as well as Budget Director Earl Anzai. Inouye deserves credit for those votes.

The other five offered the flimsiest of reasons for their votes, transparent excuses. If their real purpose was to shake up the establishment, they couldn't have been more misguided. They won -- but they are the big losers in public opinion, and deservedly so.

One senator said of the five, "They came in with this swagger. They swaggered themselves into the Bronster mess."

In the wake of the vote, the five freshmen can blame themselves for pushing out of office the key figure in the Bishop Estate investigation. Would any of them like to stand up against Margery Bronster in an election?

Bishop Estate Archive

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