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Date: 12-13-2007

Case Style: Margaret R. Chambers v. Cassandra B. Ormiston

Case Number: 2006-340

Judge: William P. Robinson, III

Court: Supreme Court of Rhode Island, Providence County

Plaintiff's Attorney:

Louis M. Pulner, Providence, Rhode Island

Defendant's Attorney:

Nancy A. Palmisciano, Providence, Rhode Island


The Family Court, a legislatively created court of limited jurisdiction,1 acting pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 9-24-27, has certified the following question to this Court:

"May the Family Court properly recognize, for the purpose of entertaining a divorce petition, the marriage of two persons of the same sex who were purportedly married in another state?" For the reasons set forth herein, it is our opinion that the certified question must be answered in the negative.2

Facts and Travel

On May 26, 2004, Rhode Island residents Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston3 traveled to Massachusetts and applied for a marriage license in that state. After Ms. Chambers and Ms. Ormiston received a marriage license, a Massachusetts justice of the peace performed a marriage ceremony in Fall River, Massachusetts. The couple thereafter returned to Rhode Island, where they resided together until they decided to seek to dissolve in this state the relationship that Massachusetts deems to be a marriage4 and that had been solemnized by the Massachusetts justice of the peace.

On October 23, 2006, Ms. Chambers filed a petition for divorce in the Family Court, and on October 27 of that year Ms. Ormiston filed an answer and counterclaim. Thereafter, on December 11, 2006, the Chief Judge of the Family Court certified to this Court a question as to whether or not the Family Court has subject matter jurisdiction to grant a petition for divorce with respect to a same-sex couple.

We considered the Family Court's certified question in conference on January 4, 2007 and again on January 10, 2007, and we determined at that point that our consideration of the certified question required that the Family Court make further findings of fact. While retaining jurisdiction, we remanded the matter to the Family Court and directed that it address several questions of fact. We also directed the certifying justice of the Family Court, based on his findings of fact, to determine: (1) whether or not the case presented an actual case or controversy; (2) whether or not the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution statute does not authorize the Family Court to entertain a divorce petition filed by "two persons of the same sex who were purportedly married in another state."

On October 9, 2007, after reviewing the briefs filed by the parties, as well as the briefs of a number of amici curiae, we heard oral argument from the parties with respect to the certified question.5


Upon contemplating the question certified by the Family Court, it became clear to us that the precise issue we must decide is ultimately the following: What is the meaning of the word "marriage" within the Rhode Island statute6 that empowers the Family Court to grant divorces - or, stated even more precisely, what did the word mean at the time that the members of the General Assembly enacted the statute? It is imperative that we direct our attention to the meaning of this statutory term at that point in time. We are well aware that "[t]his Court is the final arbiter with respect to questions of statutory construction." New England Expedition- Providence, LLC v. City of Providence, 773 A.2d 259, 263 (R.I. 2001); see also Unistrut Corp. v. State Department of Labor and Training, 922 A.2d 93, 98 (R.I. 2007). In carrying out that responsibility, we are mindful of the principle that our role is to determine the intent of the General Assembly by looking to "the language, nature, and object" of the enactments of that body. In re Estate of Gervais, 770 A.2d 877, 880 (R.I. 2001) (quoting State v. Pelz, 765 A.2d 824, 829-30 (R.I. 2001)); see also Pacheco v. LaChapelle, 91 R.I. 359, 361-62, 163 A.2d 38, 40 (1960).

We have employed our customary procedure in approaching this particular question of statutory construction.7 Pursuant to that procedure, we first attempt to see whether or not the statute in question has a plain meaning and therefore is unambiguous; in that situation, we simply apply that plain meaning to the case at hand. See, e.g., State v. DiCicco, 707 A.2d 251, 253 (R.I. 1998); Pacheco, 91 R.I. at 361-62, 163 A.2d at 40. By contrast, if a statute is ambiguous, we must engage in a more elaborate statutory construction process, in which process we very frequently employ the canons of statutory construction. See, e.g., Horn v. Southern Union Co., 927 A.2d 292, 294 (R.I. 2007) (employing the in pari materia canon of statutory construction); Kells v. Town of Lincoln, 874 A.2d 204, 212 (R.I. 2005) (employing the in pari materia canon); State v. Dearmas, 841 A.2d 659, 667 (R.I. 2004) (employing the interpretive doctrine of noscitur a sociis in construing a provision of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure); Berthiaume v. School Committee of Woonsocket, 121 R.I. 243, 248, 397 A.2d 889, 893 (1979) (employing the interpretive principle that repeals by implication are disfavored); see also Gorman v. Gorman, 883 A.2d 732, 738 n.9 (R.I. 2005) (employing the expressio unius est exclusio alterius maxim in interpreting the meaning of a contract).


After initially addressing the issue of our own jurisdiction, we shall turn to the certified question itself and determine whether or not the language of the statute (understanding that language as did the legislators who enacted the statute) has a plain meaning and so is unambiguous. Thereafter, we shall consider the same language through the prism of the most relevant canon of statutory construction. Finally, we shall conclude by referencing certain highly relevant jurisprudential and public policy principles.

I. This Court's Appellate Jurisdiction

In our judgment, this case is properly justiciable. By contrast with the federal courts, our jurisdiction is not limited by an inflexible constitutional "cases and controversies" requirement. Rhode Island Ophthalmological Society v. Cannon, 113 R.I. 16, 28, 317 A.2d 124, 130 (1974). Although it is our policy not to rule on abstract questions (see id. at 28, 317 A.2d at 130-31), we do not view the instant case as presenting an abstract question. Rather, the issue of Family Court jurisdiction vel non, which lies at the heart of this case, is an issue about which there is real controversy, and the resolution of that controversy will have definite real-world consequences. In view of those considerations, and bearing in mind our general supervisory authority over the courts, we are convinced that it is proper for us to adjudicate this case. See generally Vose v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 587 A.2d 913, 915 (R.I. 1991).

II. The Meaning of the Word "Marriage" in G.L. 1956 § 8-10-3(a)

The issue before us is rather narrow, and it can be decided entirely on the statutory level: Does G.L. 1956 § 8-10-3(a), the statute authorizing the Family Court to "hear and determine all petitions for divorce from the bond of marriage," empower that court to grant a divorce to the instant parties, who are described in the certified question as "two persons of the same sex who were purportedly married in another state?" When we are called upon to decide what the General Assembly intended when it enacted a particular statute, we always begin with the principle that "[t]he plain statutory language is the best indicator of legislative intent." State v. Santos, 870 A.2d 1029, 1032 (R.I. 2005) (citing numerous cases to the same effect).

It is clear to us that in this instance we are not confronted with an ambiguous statute. Therefore we simply must determine what the words in this statute were intended to mean. Once we have done so, our interpretive task is at an end and our role is simply to apply the statute as written. See Santos, 870 A.2d at 1032; DiCicco, 707 A.2d at 253; In re Denisewich, 643 A.2d 1194, 1197 (R.I. 1994).

It is a fundamental principle that "in the absence of statutory definition or qualification the words of a statute are given their ordinary meaning." Pacheco, 91 R.I. at 362, 163 A.2d at 40. What is crucial, however, is to determine the ordinary meaning as of the time of enactment. See, e.g., St. Francis College v. Al-Khazraji, 481 U.S. 604, 610 (1987); State v. Perry, 77 P.3d 313, 315-16 (Or. 2003).

Words can have different meanings at different points of historical time, but it is the role of the judiciary to ascertain what meaning a particular word had when the statute containing that word was enacted.8 It is possible that today's members of the General Assembly might have an understanding of the term "marriage" that differs from the understanding of those legislators who enacted § 8-10-3(a) in 1961,9 but our role is to interpret what was enacted and not to speculate as to what some other not-yet-enacted statute might say or mean. See West Virginia University Hospitals, Inc. v. Casey, 499 U.S. 83, 101 n.7 (1991) ("The will of Congress we look to is not a will evolving from Session to Session, but a will expressed and fixed in a particular enactment.") (Internal quotation marks omitted.).

In carrying out the process of determining the meaning of the words employed by an enacting legislature, reference to contemporaneous dictionaries is appropriate and often helpful. See, e.g., Gustafson v. Alloyd Co., 513 U.S. 561, 575 (1995) (referencing the 1910 edition of Black's Law Dictionary in construing the term "prospectus" in the Securities Act of 1933); St. Francis College, 481 U.S. at 610-11 (demonstrating, by citing to various nineteenth century dictionaries and encyclopedias, that the meaning of the word "race" at that time was different from what it is today); Perry, 77 P.3d at 315 (employing legal dictionaries from the 1920s and 1930s to determine the meaning of "place of business" as used in a statute enacted in that era). 8 In one of his most quoted opinions, Justice Holmes wrote: "A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used." Towne v. Eisner, 245 U.S. 418, 425 (1918) (emphasis added); see also Harry Willmer Jones, Statutory Doubts and Legislative Intention, 40 Colum. L. Rev. 957, 967 (1940) ("[A]ny serious effort on the part of judges to discover the thought or reference behind the language of a legislative enactment must be based upon a painstaking effort to reproduce the setting or context in which the statutory words were employed.").

With respect to the case at hand, there is absolutely no reason to believe that, when the act creating the Family Court became law in 1961,10 the legislators understood the word marriage to refer to any state other than "the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex." The quoted words are the definition of marriage that is set forth in the 1961 edition of Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language.11 Id. at 1384. Similarly, the American College Dictionary, published in 1955, defines marriage as "the legal union of a man with a woman for life." Id. at 746. Likewise, Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary, published in 1963, defines marriage as, "[t]he state of being married; a legal contract entered into by a man and a woman, to live together as husband and wife." Id. at 829. In each case, the primary dictionary definition12 of marriage refers only to a union between a man and a woman.13

It is pertinent to note that Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, writing in 2003 for the plurality in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (Mass. 2003), expressly acknowledged that the decision of the Supreme Judicial Court in that case "marks a significant change in the definition of marriage as it has been inherited from the common law, and understood by many societies for centuries." Id. at 965 (emphasis added). As we understand the language of the existing divorce statute, it does not constitute "express language conferring subject-matter jurisdiction upon the Family Court" whereby it could entertain a divorce petition involving two persons of the same sex. See State v. Kenney, 523 A.2d 853, 854 (R.I. 1987) (noting that the powers of the Family Court are "strictly limited to those conferred by the Legislature."). Moreover, "[i]n the absence of a clear legislative intent to the contrary, such jurisdiction cannot be inferred." State v. Zittel, 94 R.I. 325, 330, 180 A.2d 455, 458 (1962); see also Kenney, 523 A.2d at 854.14

We have concluded that § 8-10-3(a) is unambiguous, and we have ascertained its plain meaning by looking to the meaning of the word "marriage" at the time of the statute's enactment the "male party" in the context of applications for marriage licenses); § 15-2-7 (requiring the "bride and groom" to swear to the truth of what they state in filling out the application for marriage); see also G.L. 1956 § 15-1-1 (providing that "[n]o man shall marry" any one of a number of specified female relatives); § 15-1-2 (providing that "[n]o woman shall marry" any one of a number of specified male relatives); G.L. 1956 § 11-6-1 (employing gendered terms in setting forth the elements of the crime of bigamy).

III. The Noscitur a Sociis Canon of Statutory Construction In the present instance, although we perceive absolutely no ambiguity in the statutory term "marriage," it is noteworthy that we would have reached the same result even if there were statutory ambiguity and we were required to consult the canons of statutory construction, which we very frequently consult to help guide us in determining the legislative intent that underlies ambiguous statutory language.16

In this case, well-established principles of statutory construction17 would lead us ineluctably to conclude that the General Assembly has not granted the Family Court the power to grant a divorce in the situation described in the certified question. Above all, we have been 15 The plain meaning rule need not be adhered to when it would bring about "an absurd result." Kaya v. Partington, 681 A.2d 256, 261 (R.I. 1996). Our reading of the divorce statute, however, does not produce an absurd result, but simply one that is less broad than some would prefer. It is now the role of the General Assembly to decide, if it chooses to do so, whether there should be a broader divorce statute.

Accordingly, we have looked to that broader context, and it is clear to us that the language used in several other statutes in the General Laws relating to marriage constitutes an extremely strong confirmatory indication that, in enacting § 8-10-3(a), the General Assembly had in mind only marriages involving two persons of the opposite sex. Many provisions in the General Laws that relate to marriage reflect an unspoken assumption on the part of the General Assembly that the status called "marriage" consists of the union of a man and a woman. See, e.g., G.L. 1956 § 15-2-1 (referring to the "female party" and the "male party" in the context of applications for marriage licenses); § 15-2-7 (requiring the "bride and groom" to swear to the truth of what they state in filling out the application for marriage); see also G.L. 1956 § 15-1-1 (providing that "[n]o man shall marry" any one of a number of specified female relatives); § 15- 1-2 (providing that "[n]o woman shall marry" any one of a number of specified male relatives); G.L. 1956 § 11-6-1 (employing gendered terms in setting forth the elements of the crime of bigamy).

There are times, and this is one such time, where one may properly infer that the General Assembly considered something to be so obvious that no explicit statutory statement of definition was necessary. The overall statutory scheme reflects a legislative assumption that matrimony involves two people of different genders.

IV. The Proper Role of the Judicial Branch

As explained in Section II of this opinion, we have ascertained what the term "marriage" signified to the legislators who enacted the subject statute; in the words of a leading dictionary of that era, it meant "the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex." Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 1384 (1961). Having made that determination as to the statute's unambiguous meaning, our role is at an end; we have no constitutional authority to extend the scope of this or any other statute. Citizens for Preservation of Waterman Lake v. Davis, 420 A.2d 53, 57 (R.I. 1980) ("It is well settled that when the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, the statute may not be construed or extended but must be applied literally."). Indeed, this Court has in the past pointed to the limited statutory authority of the Family Court, and we have also indicated that it is not our role to supplement or amend a statute. Waldeck v. Piner, 488 A.2d 1218, 1220 (R.I. 1985) (noting that the powers of the Family Court "are limited to those expressly conferred upon it by statute: its jurisdiction cannot be extended by implication"); see also Simeone v. Charron, 762 A.2d 442, 448-49 (R.I. 2000) ("[T]his Court will not broaden statutory provisions by judicial interpretation unless such interpretation is necessary and appropriate in carrying out the clear intent or defining the terms of the statute."); Sindelar v. Leguia, 750 A.2d 967, 972 (R.I. 2000) ("[O]ur assigned task is simply to interpret the Act, not to redraft it * * *."); see generally Dodd v. United States, 545 U.S. 353, 359-60 (2005) ("It is for Congress, not this Court, to amend the statute if it believes that [the statutory language leads to undesirable consequences]."); Pinter v. Dahl, 486 U.S. 622, 653 (1988); Pierce v. Pierce, 770 A.2d 867, 872 (R.I. 2001); State v. Bryant, 670 A.2d 776, 779 (R.I. 1996); Rhode Island Federation of Teachers v. Sundlun, 595 A.2d 799, 802 (R.I. 1991); State v. Calise, 478 A.2d 198, 201 (R.I. 1984); Little v. Conflict of Interest Commission, 121 R.I. 232, 236-37, 397 A.2d 884, 887 (1979); Gomes v. Rhode Island State Board of Elections, 120 R.I. 951, 957, 393 A.2d 1088, 1091 (1978).

The role of the judicial branch is not to make policy, but simply to determine the legislative intent as expressed in the statutes enacted by the General Assembly. See, e.g., Little, 121 R.I. at 237, 397 A.2d at 887; State v. Patriarca, 71 R.I. 151, 154, 43 A.2d 54, 55 (1945) ("[O]ur duty * * * is solely to construe the statute * * *."); see also Central Bank of Denver, N.A. v. First Interstate Bank of Denver, N.A., 511 U.S. 164, 188 (1994) ("Policy considerations cannot override our interpretation of the text and structure of the Act * * *."); Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 194 (1978); United States v. Great Northern Railway Co., 343 U.S. 562, 575 (1952) ("It is our judicial function to apply statutes on the basis of what Congress has written, not what Congress might have written."); Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 485 (1917) ("It is elementary that the meaning of a statute must, in the first instance, be sought in the language in which the act is framed, and if that is plain, * * * the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms."); Civitarese v. Town of Middleborough, 412 Mass. 695, 700, 591 N.E.2d 1091, 1095 (1992) ("We will not read into the plain words of a statute a legislative intent that is not expressed by those words.").

The case of Pizza Hut of America, Inc. v. Pastore, 519 A.2d 592 (R.I. 1987), is especially instructive as to the relatively modest role of the judiciary. After construing a particular liquor control statute as expressing a legislative intent to benefit public and parochial schools, but not other types of schools, this Court stated:

"We believe that the Legislature intended to exclude private schools from the protection afforded by § 3-7-19. We are aware of the social intent of the legislation, and yet upon the peculiar facts of this case, we do not believe that this interpretation of the statute leads to an absurd result. If the court has not interpreted the statute in a manner consistent with the legislative intent to promote temperance, further societal response is the exclusive prerogative of the Legislature." Id. at 594.

In our judgment, when the General Assembly accorded the Family Court the power to grant divorces from "the bond of marriage," it had in mind only marriages between people of different sexes. Having said that, we remain mindful of the fact that, unlike a Constitutional Convention, the General Assembly meets every year. That body is free, if it so chooses, to enact divorce legislation that it might possibly deem more appropriate. We have frequently so indicated with respect to numerous statutes. See, e.g., Town of Johnston v. Santilli, 892 A.2d 123, 133 (R.I. 2006) ("We recognize that there exists a public policy argument that in the current environment, school committees should have their own legal counsel. That debate, however, should be resolved in the public forum or in the Legislature, not in the courts."); Moretti v. Division of Intoxicating Beverages, 62 R.I. 281, 286, 5 A.2d 288, 290 (1939) ("If the matter is called to the attention of the [L]egislature it may be persuaded to make the necessary amendment to the statute***."); see also Comtronics, Inc. v. Puerto Rico Telephone Co., 553 F.2d 701, 707 (1st Cir. 1977) ("It is for Congress, *** and not for this Court, to rewrite the statute to reflect changed circumstances."); Cardi Corp. v. City of Warwick, 122 R.I. 478, 479, 409 A.2d 136, 137 (1979); Malinou v. Board of Elections, 108 R.I. 20, 35, 271 A.2d 798, 805 (1970). As we said years ago with respect to another statute, "‘the court is to go no faster and no farther than the Legislature has gone.'" State v. Goldberg, 61 R.I. 461, 468, 1 A.2d 101, 104 (1938) (quoting Howard v. Howard, 115 A. 259, 260 (Me. 1921)); see also Rhode Island Dairy Queen, Inc. v. Burke, 101 R.I. 644, 647, 226 A.2d 420, 422 (1967).

A Final Consideration

We know that sometimes our decisions result in palpable hardship to the persons affected by them. It is, however, a fundamental principle of jurisprudence that a court has no power to grant relief in the absence of jurisdiction, as is true in the instant case. Ours is not a policymaking branch of the government. We are cognizant of the fact that this observation may be cold comfort to the parties before us. But, if there is to be a remedy to this predicament, fashioning such a remedy would fall within the province of the General Assembly.

* * *


Outcome: We conclude that the word “marriage” in § 8-10-3(a), the statute which empowers the Family Court “to hear and determine all petitions for divorce from the bond of marriage,” was not intended by the General Assembly to empower the Family Court to hear and determine petitions for divorce involving (in the words of the certified question) “two persons of the same sex who were purportedly married in another state.” See Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board v. Valley Falls Fire District, 505 A.2d 1170, 1171 (R.I. 1986) (“This [C]ourt has stated repeatedly that in construing a statute, our task is to establish and effectuate the intent of the Legislature by examining the language, nature, and object of the statute.”). It necessarily follows that the Family Court, a court of limited statutory jurisdiction, is without jurisdiction over the captioned matter. See generally Kenney, 523 A.2d at 854-55. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, the question certified by the Family Court must be answered in the negative.

Plaintiff's Experts: Unknown

Defendant's Experts: Unknown

Comments: None

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