There are a few notable lessons from the Court’s ruling that are useful reminders for other cases.
1.) The Court does not like sweeping rulings. In some of the press coverage following the Court’s opinion, several outlets initially characterized the ruling broadly as one that took the logical next step following Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country. Even the ACLU, trumpeting their victory, framed the ruling in those terms. The Court’s holding, however, is a narrow one based on the plain language of the statute at issue, Code § 20-109(A), and the opinion never discusses, or even mentions, Obergefell.
Code § 20-109(A) allows a spouse paying support to petition a court to terminate such support if “the spouse receiving support has been habitually cohabiting with another person in a relationship analogous to marriage.” In two sentences at the heart of the opinion, the Court states that Code § 20-109(A), is “gender neutral” and can thus “apply to either same-sex or opposite-sex relationships.” The Court then bolstered this finding by distinguishing prior decisions and examining the legislative history of the enactment. In case there was any doubt, the Court then expressly stated that the definition of marriage in Virginia was irrelevant to its ruling because the controlling words in Code § 20-109(A) were “a relationship analogous to marriage.”
The appellant in this case invited the Court to rule that Obergefell compelled reading Code § 20-109(A) to encompass same-sex relationships: that if the U.S. Constitution allowed both same-sex and opposite-sex couples to be married, then “marriage” in Code § 20-109(A) must be read to encompass both as well. The Court declined the invitation and instead ruled that this particular statute, based on its plain language and legislative history, encompassed both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Appellate decisions potentially impact litigants for years to come, and often under unforeseen circumstances. As a result, the Court is cautious about ruling broadly when it need not do so. Which brings me to my second point:
2.) The Court often asks litigants for guidance in deciding a case. Anyone who heard the oral argument in this case was not surprised by the Court’s narrow ruling: Justice Mims, the author of the opinion, asked Luttrell’s counsel about the possibility. At oral argument, in response to Luttrell’s argument that Obergefell compelled reading the statute to encompass same-sex couples, Justice Mims asked: “You invite us to adopt your position solely on statutory grounds. We don’t have to reach Obergefell or Bostic, do we?” This is a regular occurrence: the Court wants to get it right and wants to adequately consider how best to decide a case.
If you are before the Court, consider how it could possibly dispose of the case. Can it rule A instead of B? Does the record or procedural rules allow it to do so? Why should it? Put yourself in the position of a Justice at the appellate buffet: with this many ways to rule, why should I chose one over another? The answers to these questions warrant a nuanced approach at the appellate level that often differs from trial practice.
3.) Know your statute’s history! A reminder to attorneys practicing before the Court: if your case involves a question of statutory interpretation, research its history. As noted above, the Court in Lutrell anchored its opinion to the legislative history of Code 20-109(A), finding that the General Assembly did not intend to limit the statute to only opposite-sex relationships. Language expressly limiting the provision to “opposite sex” relationships had been considered and then removed from the statute prior to its enactment. Notably, the statute was introduced and passed when Justice Mims was in the House of Delegates.
Although the Court will generally examine legislative history only when the language is ambiguous, remember #2 above: the Court wants to know its options. This means litigants should know their statute’s history. If your argument includes anything close to “the General Assembly could not have/must have intended X,” be prepared to defend that argument with knowledge of prior amendments, statutory language, or other legislative history.