North Carolina finally realizes that while love is love, violence is also violence. In the filed opinion, M.E. v. T.J., the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled on Dec. 31, 2020 that unmarried same-sex couples can no longer be prevented from obtaining domestic violence protective orders. Outside of familial relationships, North Carolina’s domestic violence protective orders — referred to as “50B protective orders” or “DVPOs” — were previously limited to unmarried persons, of opposite sex, currently or formerly living together; unmarried persons with a child in common; persons of the opposite sex currently or formerly in a dating relationship; and current or former household members. Prior to this 92-page Court of Appeals opinion, North Carolina was our nation’s last state to bar DVPOs for same-sex couples.
This all stemmed from a case when the Wake County trial court failed to issue a DVPO against T.J., a woman, when she committed acts of violence against her intimate partner, M.E., also a woman. The trial court found that M.E. presented enough evidence to support the entry of a DVPO, had her partner been a member of the opposite sex, but refused to enter a DVPO under the North Carolina Statute because the abuser and the intimate partner were in a same-sex dating relationship.
Appellant, M.E., argued that same-sex relationships are equal to opposite-sex relationships under the United States Constitution; there is no legitimate legislative, or government purpose or interest served by preventing same-sex victims of domestic violence from obtaining DVPOs; and the relevant North Carolina statute, Chapter 50B, violates the North Carolina and Federal Constitutions for singling out victims of same-sex dating violence. LGBTQ people experience intimate-partner and dating violence in damaging ways and at alarming rates, but they also face unique barriers when seeking help.
Linda McGee, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, wrote in the court’s opinion, “By telling Plaintiff that her existence is not as valuable as that of individuals who engage in ‘opposite-sex’ relationships, the State is not just needlessly endangering Plaintiff, it is expressing State-sanctioned animus toward her.”
Ultimately the Court of Appeals held that the relevant provision of North Carolina’s statute is unconstitutional, and the Statute will now be applied to any persons who are in or have been in a dating relationship; the “of opposite sex” language has been stricken.
North Carolina citizens and government officials, including Attorney General Josh Stein and Governor Roy Cooper, are celebrating this landmark decision. Attorney General Josh Stein wrote, “BREAKING: A big win for equality in NC! All people are equal no matter if you are straight or gay. Today, the NC Court of Appeals recognized that truth and the NC and US constitutions guarantee it.” Governor Roy Cooper wrote, “This decision is a win for equality and inclusion and for our fight against domestic violence in North Carolina. State laws should protect everyone equally, including our LGBTQ community, and this ruling makes that clear.”
This opinion may not be the end of the road for equality when it comes to same-sex domestic violence, as it included a 17-page dissent which raised procedural issues related to appellate jurisdiction and the lack of including North Carolina’s Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore as necessary defendants when challenging the validity of a statute. We will have to wait until a couple weeks after Jan. 20 (when the new mandate issues) to see if any interested party follows the dissent and takes this issue up to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. LGBTQ North Carolinians and supporters remain hopeful that the M.E. v. T.J. opinion sticks and does not go further on appeal.
Anyone facing a potential domestic violence issue, now or in the future, should consult a family law attorney as soon as possible to gain an understanding of the legal requirements and implications and the severity of DVPOs. For information on how to leave a DV situation as safely as possible, please go to Sodoma Law’s free epamphlet, “Escaping Domestic Violence: What You Need to Know.”
Zachary T. Porfiris is a family law attorney at Sodoma Law in Charlotte, N.C. Visit sodomalaw.com to learn more.
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