State high court to hear case expanding domestic violence law to unwed same-sex couples

Attorney General Alan Wilson holds a yearly ceremony to recognize those killed by domestic violence. The South Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could expand the domestic violence law enacted in the last legislative session to same-sex couples.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s high court will hear a case seeking to expand the state’s new domestic violence law to cover unwed same-sex couples.

The request for a hearing was filed in August by attorneys Bakari Sellers and Alexandra Benevento on behalf of a woman who was denied a protection order by a Richland County court after being hit and choked by her ex-fiancee.

The state’s domestic violence law, as written, does not apply to a man or woman who is battered by a partner of the same sex if they aren’t married. Victims are defined in the law as a “household member” who is a spouse, a former spouse, persons who have a child in common or a male and female who are cohabiting or formerly cohabitated.

Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office, which would defend the law, will have 30 days to respond to the complaint. Several briefs and responses will likely be filed before justices hear arguments, possibly by January.

Wilson’s office was closed for Veterans Day and could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

South Carolina has long-ranked first or near the top as the deadliest state for women at the hands of men while the Legislature ignored the death toll documented last year in The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Till Death Do Us Part.” But those statistics probably didn’t include the victims of same-sex relationships because they’re not covered under the law, Sellers said.

“When the Legislature makes laws, which, either intentionally or unintentionally are discriminatory, we have an opportunity to right a wrong,” Sellers said. “The fact that we had a bill that was signed into law in 2015 but didn’t take into account homosexual relationships is a problem.”

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who authored the new domestic violence law that increases penalties for both one-time abusers and frequent offenders, said the exclusion of same-sex couples was not an “intentional slight.” Lawmakers were simply working off the law that was already on the books.

“It’s not like we made a conscious policy decision to exclude anybody,” Martin said. “We were just attempting to address the underlying domestic violence law in the same manner in which it had previously applied.”

Martin lamented that Sellers, who served eight years in the South Carolina House before giving up his seat to run unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2014, wasn’t in the Legislature this year when the domestic violence law was being written and debated.

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If he had been, Martin said, Sellers could have sought to amend the bill rather than now having to go to court to seek an expansion that potentially could undermine the whole law.

But Attorney John Nichols — who last year represented a married same-sex couple with three children who sought the same legal rights for their family as straight couples — said the Supreme Court could issue a ruling that leaves the law intact but redefines victims to include same-sex partners.

That, he said, would enable the woman to go back to Family Court to obtain a protective order.

“The reason the domestic violence law expands its reach beyond married couples is to accept the reality that a lot of folks live together,” Nichols said. “This statute ... does not acknowledge that same-sex couples can be in a marriage-like relationship.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at (843) 577-7111.

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