It's been a while since I've posted because there are so many exciting things keeping the firm busy, but I had to take a moment to invite you to join us and many other members of the legal community, business professionals, and elected officials in celebrating the work of the QLaw Foundation at the annual FallTacular, which raises money for public interest internships for law students, free legal services, and educational programs benefiting Washington's GLBT communities. If you're able to come and join the fun for a good cause, look for Kate (founding attorney), Tara (our newest addition), and some firm giveaways!
At first glance, this may seem like an odd topic for a family law blog, but it really isn't--pets are family too! The first step to protecting your furry children is to get them licensed and microchiped so they can always find their way home. If you renew an expired license in the month of April, the city waives all fines.
Pets actually come up in family law quite a bit. Did you know that you can include your pets in a domestic violence protection order? In addition to providing for you to have custody of your children and secure possession of your belongings when leaving an abusive partner (or have the abuser removed from the home--you don't have to leave to be safe!), you can ensure that your pet remains safely with you in a standard Washington State DVPO:
This is crucial because pets are frequently victims too. There is a well-known correlation between cruelty to animals and antisocial behavior, and even if someone has not abused an animal before, victims standing up for themselves can trigger new controlling behavior in batterers, including using a beloved pet to harm their victim indirectly. You can read more at ASPCA.
Loving pet families have different incentives for including animals in their family law orders. Although Washington State requires the use of standardized forms for domestic relations (family law) cases, and pet custody isn't mentioned, there are plenty of opportunities under the headings of "Other" to write in provisions that fit your family, and it is becoming more and more common to include provisions for the care of pets. Some people choose to allow a pet to stay with whichever party is keeping the family home, while others may want the pet to travel between households along with the human children to foster a greater sense of normalcy for them. Whatever you decide is best for your family, you should include it in your court papers, for the same reason a parenting plan goes into so much detail--the less ambiguity there is, the less conflict there will be, and the easier it will be for everyone to adjust to the changes of a family restructuring.
Advocates for equality know we have common sense, morality, and justice on our side, but it's always nice to have science too. In anticipation of the arguments to be heard this week by the Supreme Court on two key marriage equality cases, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a new study and announced its formal policy statement in support of marriage equality because of the benefit to the nearly 2 million children being raised by gay and lesbian in the U.S. today:
"To promote optimal health and well-being of all children, the American Academy of Pediatrics supports access for all children to (1) civil marriage rights for their parents and (2) willing and capable foster and adoptive parents, regardless of the parents' sexual orientation." (click for full policy statement)
The study confirms what we already know: it's parents' love for their children that matters, not their sexuality. There may not ever be a point in our lifetimes when everyone accepts this basic truth, but hopefully, starting tomorrow (countdown with United for Marriage!), our country will be setting out on a path towards policy based on fact and fairness rather than the ignorant intolerance of the shrinking minority.
Recognizing that access to the civil justice system is a fundamental right, the Access to Justice Board works to achieve equal access for those facing economic and other significant barriers.
The Pro Se Project Forms Review Work Group of the Washington State Supreme Court's Access to Justice Board is working to make family law forms easier for non-lawyers to use...but that name alone makes me skeptical about their ability to do that job well. One of the big problems with attorneys, as is true in many professions, is that we have spent so much time gaining the education and experience needed to be good at our jobs that we tend to forget what it was like before we became part of this world, and how intimidating and confusing it seemed from the outside.
Attorneys are likely going to end up having the most influence over the new forms because we're plugged in to the court system's inner workings and deal with these documents every day, but the input of non-lawyers is what should matter most. The whole purpose of this agency is to make it easier for people to deal with legal issues even if they can't afford an attorney, but we can't achieve that goal from inside our lawyer bubble. The new proposed parenting plan form is open for comment from the public, so here's your chance to let us know: is it easy to understand? if you've had a Washington parenting plan before, is this one better? what's missing? what needs to be explained more clearly? Submit your comments directly to the court and be heard!
“This means so much to those of us who dedicated ourselves to the military, only to be forced out against our will for being who we are,” said Collins. “We gave all we had to our country, and just wanted the same dignity and respect for our service as any other veterans.”
Thanks to a class-action suit by the ACLU, servicemembers who were discharged on account of sexual orientation in the years leading up to the repeal of DADT will now be entitled to their full separation pay. Previously, the Department of Defense Policy was to cut this transitional period compensation in half for members of this class of veterans, despite lengthy and honorable service.
View the settlement press release
View more info on Collins v. US
This case highlights two big problems with the law when it comes to progress towards equality and full respect of human dignity: (1) messy bureaucracy, and (2) statutes of limitation. The suit was necessary because the provision for cutting severance pay of anyone discharged for homosexuality was not part of DADT, so it was not repealed when DADT was--discrimination is not always isolated in one bad policy, it may be strewn throughout the laws and administrative regulations governing the conduct of government departments and agencies. And the suit can only offer a remedy for those discharged since 2004, because the law limits the amount of time in which it is possible to right old wrongs--those who experienced the same unjust treatment in earlier years are out of luck.
These problems are certainly not limited to the military or to the federal system. Washington, and Seattle in particular, have enacted some great protections against discrimination, but sometimes coverage is incomplete and legal action is needed to close the gaps. If you believe you may have been the victim of any type of discrimination, consult an attorney right away to hopefully avoid a statute of limitations problems barring you from taking action.
There isn't much to add to President Obama's statements about today's tragedy; I'm sure parents will indeed be hugging their children a little tighter tonight. But in the days ahead, it may help for parents to call on one of the greatest role models we have ever known for teaching and nurturing children: Mr. Rogers. His advice about helping children understand and cope with national tragedy is as timeless as his cherished lessons of sharing, caring, and exploring the world around us:
Careful, don't break out the bong quite yet! Just like marriage equality, I-502 doesn't go into effect until the election is certified on December 6, 2012. Even then, it's important to remember the restrictions. Unless you are authorized under the previous medical cannabis regulations, you are not allowed to grow your own plants, nor are individuals allowed to sell marijuana. Only state-licensed stores will be permitted, and the process of figuring out how that will work may take up to another year. So you'll be allowed to have it, but you can't grow it or buy it legally...and I'm not even going to try to make sense out of that.
Marijuana will be treated like alcohol rather than tobacco products, in that you must be 21 years old, limit use to your home or some other private/regulated space, and not drive under the influence. You can be subject to penalties if you use pot underage, in public, or before you get behind the wheel, although it will be treated similarly to traffic violations--it will no longer be a criminal offense. In anticipation of this major shift, several counties, including King, Pierce, and Clark, have already dropped pending charges. However, people who are already serving sentences for marijuana-related convictions will not be cleared; although it seems counter-intuitive and morally suspect to continue punishing people whose behavior the voters have decided is perfectly ok, the fact that it was illegal at the time of the conviction means that their sentences are legally permissible.
Many people are also displeased about the ability of non-governmental institutions to prohibit now-legal behavior. For instance, the University of Washington won't change its policies banning pot from campuses, in large part because they could lose federal funding if they did. Additionally, an employer's right to drug test won't change--Washington is an "at-will" employment state, so you can be fired for any reason, including your recreational activities. Whether federal law enforcement will add an additional barrier is yet to be determined, as is the eventual cost to consumers after heavy "sin tax" applied at each stage from production to sale.
Other resources: ACLU-Washington, Seattle Police Blotter
R74 passed and all equal rights advocates are very pleased, but registered domestic partners in Washington state are now in an interesting position. The law phases out domestic partnerships, except for seniors (to allow for retention of certain social security or pension benefits). So unless one partner will be at least 62 years old by June 30, 2014, current same-sex couples' registered domestic partnerships will automatically be converted to marriages on that date. The marriage will apply retroactively, so the legal date of marriage for these couples will be the original date of the registered domestic partnership. If you don't want to become married, you would need to start an action to dissolve your registered domestic partnership before June 30, 2014.
If you do want to be married but don't want to wait 2 years for conversion, you can apply for a marriage license any time after December 6, 2012 (when the election is certified). There is a 3-day waiting period in Washington for all marriages, so the first day that same-sex couples can be officially married is December 9, 2012. You should also take the affirmative step of getting legally married if your RDP or civil union was contracted in a different state--only Washington RDPs will be automatically converted.
Same-sex couples from other states are welcome to marry here, but they should be aware of possible complications if the relationship ends: while there is no residency requirement for marriage in Washington, there is a residency requirement for divorce, so theoretically a couple from another state could marry in Washington, return home, and be stuck with it for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, as long as DOMA is in effect, other states and the federal government are not required to recognize same-sex marriages despite their legality here, and if your state doesn't recognize your marriage, your state's courts wouldn't have jurisdiction to dissolve it. For more information about the status of marriage equality across the nation, see: http://www.freedomtomarry.org/states/
I have had several inquiries recently from people who could have been great candidates for vacating their criminal records. They made mistakes long ago, but have since led law-abiding lives, and they want prospective employers and landlords to see who they are now instead of being blinded by the blight on their records. I would have been happy to help them, but one pesky detail made them all ineligible: outstanding Legal Financial Obligations. Even though they had successfully completed the terms of their probation, they stay under the court's jurisdiction "until the obligation is completely satisfied, regardless of the statutory maximum for the crime."(1)
These obligations consist of fees, fines, and restitution orders at the discretion of the sentencing judge. One study of LFOs in Washington found the average LFO assessed per felony conviction was $2,540.(2) At an interest rate of 12% interest rate, which begins accruing at the time of conviction and continues to accrue while you are incarcerated, LFOs can quickly become massive debts that can haunt you indefinitely. Even those diligently making $25 monthly payments on average LFOs would still be in debt after 30 years.
The most disturbing part of that study was the finding that "convictions involving Hispanic defendants are associated with significantly higher fees and fines than those involving white defendants, even after controlling for relevant legal factors."
While my blog may not be able to combat institutional racism, or address the system-wide need for returned focus on rehabilitation, I can hopefully help mitigate the crippling impact of LFOs on at least a few people by reminding you to check the status of your LFOs--even if you think you repaid--by contacting your county clerk.(3) Pay as much as you can, as soon as you can. If your obligation is based on fees and fines only (not restitution), and the interest accrual is causing a "significant financial hardship," it may be possible to request a reduction or waiver of the interest--but only if you are making a good faith effort to pay.(4)
1. RCW 9.94A.760(4)
2. "The Assessment and Consequences of Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State." Washington State Minority and Justice Commission Report, August 2008. http://www.courts.wa.gov/committee/pdf/2008LFO_report.pdf
3. Contact information for county clerks can be found at the end of this useful publication: Understanding How LFOs Work
4. RCW 10.82.090(2)
Wow. Judge cites Bible to deny name change to transgender woman. Oh where oh where has separation of church and state gone? To me, conforming your public persona to match who you are inside is the epitome of being true to oneself, not "fraudulent" as the Oklahoma judge so offensively alleged.
Just one more reason I am grateful to live in Washington State, where our anti-discrimination statute includes not only sexual orientation (which is more than the federal civil rights acts do), but also gender identity/expression, which the statute defines broadly as "having or being perceived as having a gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression, whether or not that gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth" (RCW 49.60.040(26)).
As of 2009, we also have one of the most progressive birth certificate policies in the country. Washington-born persons can adapt their birth certificate to match their current gender with just the support of a physician's letter verifying that they have undergone sufficient medical treatment. Unfortunately, not all bureaucracies are created equal, and there are higher hurdles to jump for other governmental agencies to grant the same courtesy, but at least we don't have a Judge Graves on our bench! I'm sending out good thoughts to Ms. Ingram and her ACLU lawyers for the appeal.