April 23, 2021

Right to marry includes right to choose spouse: In prison, same sex or not

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Demonstrations outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day of arguments in the cases involving same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges.  April 28, 2015.  Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Demonstrations outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day of arguments in the cases involving same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges. April 28, 2015. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

By Marcia Coyle, From The National Law Journal

Seventh Circuit points to landmark same-sex marriage ruling in a decision about a former corrections employee who wants to marry a prisoner.

The right to marry includes the right to select one’s spouse, the U.S. Supreme Court said in its landmark same-sex marriage decision. And the right to choose your spouse applies to prison inmates too, says a federal appellate panel.

In Riker v. Lemmon, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Aug. 14 held that a district court was wrong when it granted summary judgment to the Indiana Department of Corrections, which had refused to allow inmate Paul Vest to marry Rebecca Riker, a former prison employee.

Riker worked at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, a level-four maximum security correctional facility in Carlisle, Indiana, in 2008. She supervised approximately 20 inmates, including Vest, in preparing and serving meals. She and Vest, who was serving a 50-year sentence for robbery, began a romantic relationship that included sexual intercourse in a walk-in cooler at the prison. The relationship was against prison policies.

A witness to their kissing reported the relationship to prison officials, and Riker quit her job. Vest was disciplined. For the next two years, Riker’s requests for visitation were denied. In 2010, she and Vest completed an application to marry, but it was denied because Riker was not on the list of Vest’s approved visitors.

Riker sued in 2013. The district court, granting summary judgment to the department, ruled against her right-to-marry claim, saying, “that the burden on Ms. Riker’s right to marry was not substantial or direct, but was light or at most moderate.”

In response to her appeal, the corrections department made two security-related arguments. First, a former employee who previously violated department policies is more likely to engage in other prohibited acts; and second, a former employee may share with an inmate confidential information obtained while employed at the prison. The department also argued that because Riker was free to marry anyone but Vest, the prohibition imposed a minimal burden on her right to marry.

Citing to Obergefell v. Hodges, the high court’s same-sex marriage decision in June, the appellate panel said the department’s last argument “can be dismissed quickly.” Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote in the ruling:

The right to marry includes the right to select one’s spouse. The proper inquiry, therefore, is whether Ms. Riker was prohibited from marrying the spouse of her choosing. Because Ms. Riker has not been left with any alternative means of exercising her right to marry Vest, it is clear that the burden on that right was not minimal.

The panel, which also included Judges William Bauer and Kenneth Ripple, then applied the high court’s 1987 decision in Turner v. Safley to determine whether the department’s reasons for denying the marriage application were reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.

“The department’s decision to forbid Ms. Riker’s marriage is premised entirely on its ex-employee visitation policy and the security justifications that support that policy,” Wood wrote. “Nothing in the record, however, supports equating general visitation with a single marriage ceremony, and we previously have indicated that a prison’s visitation policy, on its own, does not justify prohibiting an inmate’s marriage.”

And, she added, there was no evidence in the record supporting the department’s argument that prohibiting the marriage was necessary to ensure a safe and orderly institution.

“Our case law is clear that the invocation of a general security interest, standing alone, is insufficient to support the department’s decision,” Wood said. “Notably, the record does not reveal why prison officials would have difficulty monitoring the marriage ceremony to ensure that Ms. Riker does not violate prison regulations or relay sensitive information to Vest.”

The panel remanded the case to the district court, saying “absent significantly more evidence” to support the marriage ban, the department was not entitled to summary judgment.

IMAGE: Demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the day of arguments in the cases involving same-sex marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges. April 28, 2015.

Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ

For more on this story go to: http://www.nationallawjournal.com/id=1202734919108/Right-to-Marry-Includes-Right-to-Choose-Spouse-In-Prison-Same-Sex-or-Not#ixzz3jB0IhpIb

 

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