Case No. 13-1159 (U.S. District Court, Middle District, Nashville, Judge Trauger)

Tanco v. Haslam (Supreme Court of the United States, No. 14-562, opinion by Justice Kennedy)

Attorneys: Joshua A. Block and Chase B. Strangio, of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project; William E. Sharp, of the ACLU of Kentucky; Jay D. Kaplan, of the ACLU of Michigan; Thomas H. Castelli, of the ACLU of Tennessee

Plaintiffs: Valeria Tanco and Sophia Jesty, et al.

Defendants: William Haslam, in his official capacity as Governor of Tennessee, et al.

Valeria Tanco and Sophy Jesty met at veterinary school in New York. Though the couple was legally married in New York in 2011, when they moved to Tennessee to teach, the state treated them as legal strangers. When Ijpe DeKoe, a decorated combat veteran with service in Iraq and Afghanistan, was stationed for four years in Tennessee, his marriage to artist Thomas Kostura was not recognized by the state either. Nor was the marriage of Matthew Mansell and Johno Espejo, who were legally married in San Francisco in 2008.

In October 2013, the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the couples. On March 14, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that the State of Tennessee must recognize the marriages of – and only of – the couples who had filed suit. She wrote, “At this point, all signs indicate that, in the eyes of the United States Constitution, the plaintiffs’ marriages will be placed on an equal footing with those of heterosexual couples and that proscriptions against same-sex marriage will soon become a footnote in the annals of American history.”

The Tennessee attorney general quickly filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. On August 6, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit heard oral arguments in six marriage equality lawsuits from Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan, including the Tanco case.

ACLU-TN filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff-appellees in Tanco, along with ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and the ACLU affiliates in Kentucky and Michigan. The brief was filed on behalf of numerous public interest organizations and bar associations and addressed the proper standard for reviewing governmental action that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation.

Ultimately the Sixth Circuit ruled that Tennessee’s anti-marriage equality laws do not violate the U.S. Constitution, despite decisions in to the contrary in the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits.

The couples filed for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. On January 16, 2015, the Supreme Court consolidated the Tanco case with several others out of Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky and agreed to review the consolidated case, known as Obergefell v. Hodges. ACLU directly represented parties from Ohio and Kentucky at the Supreme Court.

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell to uphold the freedom to marry in all fifty states. The court’s ruling ensured that states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and struck down state marriage bans, including Tennessee’s.

Related Documents

Press Releases
Supreme Court Strikes Down Tennessee Marriage Ban (June 26, 2015)
Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to Hear Tennessee Marriage Equality Case Today (August 6, 2014)

Legal Resources
Tanco v. Haslam - Amicus Brief (June 16, 2014)