Last edited: December 08, 2004


Oxendine Ordered to Honor Domestic-Partner Insurance

Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 23, 1999
72 Marietta Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30303
Fax 404-526-5746

By Jay Croft, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A judge scolded Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine on Wednesday for blocking the city of Atlanta’s domestic-partner benefits after the state Supreme Court already had approved them.

"It was outside the scope of his statutory authority and was an abuse of his discretion," Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob said. Shoob ordered Oxendine to approve the city’s plan--which lets workers cover straight or gay dependent, domestic partners--and other similar benefit plans that follow state law.

The decision clears the way for employers across Georgia to grant the benefits, said attorneys for the city and a gay rights group.

"This is major," said Assistant City Attorney Robin Shahar, who argued the city’s case. "This victory is a long time coming."

The city, thought to be the first government in Georgia to seek the benefits, has tried to grant them since 1993, but has been blocked by legal challenges. An ordinance won Supreme Court acceptance in 1997. But Oxendine, a longtime opponent of domestic-partner benefits, still refused to allow changes in the city’s policy.

He wrote in February the high court’s approval was based on the Municipal Home Rule Act, which does not "empower the city to usurp the commissioner’s authority" and force him to approve a change in coverage. He wrote that granting the coverage would be "unfair, inequitable, would encourage misrepresentation and is contrary to the public policy of the state."

Shahar said Georgia might be the only state in the country that requires companies to seek the insurance commissioner’s approval of changes in their insurance coverage. Employers who self-insure are exempt.

The city sued March 15 to force Oxendine’s hand, and later was joined by City Councilwoman Cathy Woolard, who said she needs the insurance for her 11-year partner, Karen Geney.

At a June hearing, Assistant Attorney General Paul Weisbecker told Shoob that Oxendine opposes the policies because they encourage illegal sexual relationships.

On Wednesday, Shoob hammered a different state attorney, Harold Melton, with questions about legal support for Oxendine’s argument. Neither the city’s domestic-partner ordinance nor the insurance plans mention sex, she said, and the state is legally allowed to consider only information on the policy forms, not speculation.

"The ordinance accommodates sex," Melton told Shoob.

" ‘Accommodates sex’--what does that mean?" Shoob asked.

Melton then told Shoob that sex is not necessarily the issue. Rather, he said, some domestic partnerships seek to imitate marriage--which can be sexless--and the Legislature has voted against recognizing homosexual and common-law marriages.

"Is there any doubt that these relationships are for intimate relations?" Melton said.

"I don’t know what they’re for and I’m not sure that it’s my business--or your business, or the insurance commissioner’s business," Shoob said, since the city’s domestic-partner ordinance has passed the Supreme Court.

Spokesmen for Oxendine and Attorney General Thurbert Baker declined to comment, saying they would await Shoob’s written order Friday before deciding whether to seek an appeal.

Attorney Stephen R. Scarborough of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who represented Woolard, said Oxendine for years has taken a "damn the torpedoes" approach to the issue.

"He may have assumed that his arguments would have appeal to certain constituencies," Scarborough said. "The commissioner’s policy has had a disparate impact on gay and lesbian couples.

"I have talked to employers large and small who felt burdened by this. I think we’ll see a lot of people try to offer the benefits now. Assuming that he (Oxendine) follows the law, we really shouldn’t have any problems."


Judge Wendy Shoob’s Oral Ruling

Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 23, 1999

Judge Wendy Shoob’s oral ruling on state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s refusal to allow domestic-partner insurance benefits:

"I do not find that the commissioner’s actions in denying this coverage, these policies, was in accordance with state law and the state Constitution. I find that it was outside the scope of his statutory authority and was an abuse of his discretion. For those reasons, I will find that the conclusions made by the commissioner were unlawful and his disapproval should now be reversed and the commissioner is ordered to approve the insurance forms submitted to his office by the City of Atlanta’s insurance companies regarding this domestic-partnership coverage. And he is further directed not to unlawfully withhold his approval of domestic-partnership coverage which is in compliance with the laws of the state of Georgia and the rulings of the Supreme Court."

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