The Alaska Supreme Court has struck down a state commission’s denial of death benefits to the same-sex partner of an Anchorage hotel manager slain nearly three years ago on the basis of a same-sex marriage ban, saying it violated the Alaska Constitution.
Deborah Harris had requested death benefits from the Millennium Alaskan Hotel after her longtime partner, Kerry Fadely, was shot to death on Oct. 29, 2011. Former hotel employee Javier Martinez, who faces a first-degree state murder charge in Fadely’s death, has been sentenced to 65 years on separate federal immigration charges.
Both the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission denied Harris’s request, citing the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Harris appealed the appeals board decision to the state’s highest court, arguing that the denial of Fadely’s death benefits was discriminatory because she and Fadely would have gotten married if they could do so under state law.
In its unanimous 17-page Friday ruling (PDF), the court’s five justices agreed with Harris’s position, saying that the same-sex marriage ban passed by Alaska voters in 1998 did not preclude the awarding of benefits to same-sex couples. It also found that language in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act, which grants death benefits to widows and widowers, was discriminatory.
The court likens its decision to that in State v. Schmidt, where justices overturned a state law which granted property-tax exemptions to only married couples.
“Like the tax-exemption statute in Schmidt, the workers’ compensation statute creates a classification between married and unmarried couples,” the court wrote. “And, as in Schmidt, the statute and Marriage Amendment together prevent same-sex couples from obtaining workers’ compensation benefits to the same extent as married couples because same-sex couples are precluded from marrying in Alaska or having their out-of-state marriages recognized.”
The decision vacates the commission’s ruling, remanding the matter of Fadely’s death benefits to the body for “further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
In a statement from Lambda Legal, a legal rights organization for lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgendered rights, Harris’s co-counsel Eric Croft hailed Friday’s decision.
“Today’s ruling is an important step in the right direction for same-sex couples in Alaska,” Croft said in the statement. “The state made an already tragic situation that much more devastating for Debbie. In an instant, her life crumbled around her. This ruling is the first step in allowing Debbie to begin to rebuild her life and in protecting all Alaskan same-sex couples and their families.”
Attorneys for the Millennium Alaskan Hotel declined comment on the decision Friday.
This is a developing story. Please check KTUU.com and the Channel 2 newscasts for updates.