Bisbee, Arizona AG reach agreement on civil unions

Under an agreement reached with Bisbee and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office same sex couples will still granted official recognition but will not have the same rights reserved for married couples as defined under Arizona law.

The Arizona Attorney General’s office settled on rewrite of the town’s ordinance which now, according to the AG’s office, could be a “blueprint” for other Arizona cities to confer some legal status on same-sex partnerships.

The Attorney General said of the agreement, “There’s some details to be worked out, but on principal, we reached complete agreement. Getting 12 lawyers in the room, getting emotions out of it and dealing with what people really need to see happen, we were able to find that we were in agreement and I think that’s a very good result.”

Bisbee City Council passed an ordinance April 2, allowing the city clerk to issue civil-union certificates. Bisbee was first town in Arizona to legally recognize same-sex partnerships. Since 1996, Arizona law has defined marriage as between one man and one woman. In 2008, voters approved adding the limited definition of marriage to the state Constitution. It says that “only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state.”

“We were concerned if the ordinance were to be enacted as written, it would be misleading,” Attorney General Horne said. “People can inherit by wills and people can enter into contracts with each other, which are binding under current law. Our fear was that people would refrain from doing that, thinking they were covered by civil unions.”

Horne wanted the ordinance to be clear that a civil-union contract could not confer rights covered by state law.

Earlier this month, Horne, has invited city attorneys across the state to a discussion of how civil unions can be done in a legal way. “I have publically stated on several occasions that I am not expressing any opinion for or against civil unions,” said Attorney General Tom Horne. “For example, Phoenix has a civil ordinance that establishes a registry for hospital visitation and does not violate state law, and this office has no problem with it. But the Bisbee Ordinance as originally passed tries to change seven separate state statutes, and a municipality does not have the authority to do that.”

Horne said that one of the problems with the Bisbee Ordinance as originally passed is that it could unintentionally mislead individuals. For example, individuals could rely on the Bisbee Ordinance, believing that they have community property, with the expectation that if one of them dies, the other would inherit. But a state court would not enforce the Bisbee Ordinance, where it is contrary to state law. As a result, the person would not inherit. In the absence of the ordinance, individuals would take actions, such as with wills and contracts, that would protect their interests, and the ordinance could mislead them into failing to take those actions.

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