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Case Name Adams v. Howerton PB-CA-0053
Docket / Court No. CV 79-1003-IH ( C.D. Cal. )
State/Territory California
Case Type(s) Public Benefits / Government Services
Special Collection Same-Sex Marriage
Attorney Organization ACLU Affiliates (any)
Case Summary
In 1979, a same-sex couple brought this suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The plaintiffs had been married by a county clerk in Boulder, Colorado in 1975 (after the clerk had consulted with a District Attorney and concluded that Colorado law did not ... read more >
In 1979, a same-sex couple brought this suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The plaintiffs had been married by a county clerk in Boulder, Colorado in 1975 (after the clerk had consulted with a District Attorney and concluded that Colorado law did not prohibit same-sex marriage). The plaintiff couple included an American citizen and an Australian citizen. The Australian citizen's visa had expired in 1974, and INS had begun deportation proceedings against him in 1975. Following the marriage, the couple had filed a visa petition with INS, requesting that the Australian plaintiff be given “immediate relative” status because he was an American citizen’s spouse. INS denied the classification, denigrating the applicants with vulgar language and determining that there could be no bona fide marriage between two men. After the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) upheld the denial on appeal, the Plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the acting director of INS under the Declaratory Judgment Act and 42 U.S.C. §1983. The plaintiffs argued that they were legally married under both Colorado law and under the federal Immigration and Naturalization Code, and that depriving them of their marital status violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. They sought a declaratory judgement compelling the grant of “immediate relative” status to the alien plaintiff, as well as an injunction against the commencement of deportation proceedings against the plaintiff.

There is no docket available for this case. However, according to a published court opinion, both sides had filed motions for summary judgment when the District Court made its decision. On February 25, 1980, the District Court (Judge Irving Hill) upheld the INS denial based on the Court’s interpretation of Colorado law and federal public policy. The Court reasoned that although Colorado law did not specifically sanction or prohibit same sex marriage, other provisions of its law defined the formality of marriage as being between a man and a woman, thus suggesting that same-sex marriage was not recognized by Colorado law. The Court further reasoned that even if Colorado law allowed same-sex marriage, the state law would not be valid when applied to federal immigration law because it offended federal public policy: the government’s interest in marriage, according to the Court, revolved around protecting “societal values associated with propagation of the human race.” The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments, reasoning that even if the population of individuals who were allowed to marry is overinclusive (for example, individuals who were infertile), it did not violate the due process or equal protection clauses because limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex was acceptable because it was the “least intrusive alternative available to protect the procreative relationship.” 486 F. Supp. 1119.

The Plaintiffs appealed the decision. On February 25, 1982, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Circuit Judges J. Clifford Wallace and Thomas Tang and District Judge Howard B. Turrentine) affirmed the District Court decision. The Circuit Court found that Colorado law was ambiguous as to the legality of same-sex marriage and instead based its judgment on its interpretation of federal law. The Court reasoned that Congressional intent would determine whether the marriage was valid under federal immigration law, and because (i) the common meaning of “marriage” only included marriages between individuals of the opposite sex, and (ii) the legislative history of the 1965 amendments to the Act indicated an intent to exclude same-sexual couples, the law must be interpreted as excluding same-sex marriages. The Court further held that it would not apply strict scrutiny to its constitutional analysis because although the law may have interfered with a fundamental right to marry, Congress has plenary power to admit or exclude aliens such as the plaintiff in this case. The court then found that the law was constitutional under rational basis review. 673 F.2d 1036. The Supreme Court declined to hear the plaintiffs' appeal, and INS renewed deportation proceedings against the Australian plaintiff.

The Australian plaintiff then filed for a continuance on the grounds that deportation would result in extreme hardship because (1) he would be separated from his spouse; and (2) homosexuals were not accepted in Australian society. The BIA again ruled against him, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. In an opinion delivered by then-Judge Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by Judge Richard Harvey Chambers, the court noted that "[d]eportation rarely occurs without personal distress and emotional hurt," and upheld the BIA's decision. Judge Harry Pregerson dissented, arguing that the BIA failed to treat the plaintiff "as an individual human being" or appreciate the discrimination he was likely to experience based on his sexual orientation if deported. 772 F.2d 609.

The plaintiffs briefly left the United States in 1985, but they returned in 1986 and began to work towards marriage equality.

In 2014, the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) apologized to the surviving plaintiff for the derogatory treatment the plaintiffs experienced during their interactions with the INS. Shortly thereafter, the Ninth Circuit's ruling was abrogated by the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. After Obergefell was decided, the surviving plaintiff asked USCIS to reopen the original 1975 petition. In January 2016, the department approved the original visa petition. The case is now closed.

Sara Stearns - 06/09/2019

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Due Process
Equal Protection
Sexual orientatation
Public benefits (includes, e.g., in-state tuition, govt. jobs)
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201
Defendant(s) District Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service
Plaintiff Description A same-sex couple, one American citizen and one Australian citizen, who were married in Boulder, Colorado, and sought immigration benefits as a married couple
Indexed Lawyer Organizations ACLU Affiliates (any)
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Defendant
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief None
Source of Relief None
Filed 03/14/1979
Case Closing Year 1982
Case Ongoing No
Additional Resources
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  United States Government says L.A. Gay Couple’s 1975 Marriage is Valid
The Pride L.A.
Date: Jun. 7, 2016
By: Troy Masters
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

  Limited Partnership
Date: 2014
By: Thomas G. Miller
[ Detail ] [ External Link ]

Court Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
not recorded
Marriage License/Certificate
PB-CA-0053-0001.pdf | Detail
not recorded
Decision [Denial of visa petition]
PB-CA-0053-0002.pdf | External Link | Detail
C.D. Cal.
Order and Opinion (486 F.Supp. 1119)
PB-CA-0053-0003.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
U.S. Court of Appeals
Order and Opinion (673 F.2d 1036)
PB-CA-0053-0004.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
U.S. Court of Appeals
Opinion (772 F.2d 609)
PB-CA-0053-0010.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
not recorded
Letter of Apology [from USCIS Director]
PB-CA-0053-0005.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
Board of Immigration Appeals Ruling [Reopening Alien Relative Immigrant Visa Petition]
PB-CA-0053-0006.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
USCIS Approval of Alien Relative Immigrant Visa Petition
PB-CA-0053-0007.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
USCIS Approval of Anthony Sullivan’s Green Card Application
PB-CA-0053-0008.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
Anthony Sullivan's Green Card
PB-CA-0053-0009.pdf | External Link | Detail
not recorded
DOMA Project Timeline of Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan
PB-CA-0053-0011.pdf | External Link | Detail
show all people docs
Judges Hill, Irving (S.D. Cal., C.D. Cal.) show/hide docs
Kennedy, Anthony McLeod (Ninth Circuit, SCOTUS) show/hide docs
Wallace, John Clifford (S.D. Cal., Ninth Circuit) show/hide docs

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