AUSTIN — Here's a question for Texans: Are you really married?
Barbara Ann Radnofsky, a Houston lawyer and Democratic candidate for attorney general, says that a 22-word clause in a 2005 constitutional amendment designed to ban gay marriages erroneously endangers the legal status of all marriages in the state.
The amendment, approved by the state legislature and overwhelmingly ratified by voters, declares that "marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman." But the troublemaking phrase, as Radnofsky sees it, is Subsection B, which declares:
"This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage."
Architects of the amendment included the clause to ban same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships. But Radnofsky, who was a member of the powerhouse Vinson & Elkins law firm in Houston for 27 years until retiring in 2006, says the wording of Subsection B effectively "eliminates marriage in Texas," including common-law marriages.
She calls it a "massive mistake" and blames the current attorney general, Republican Greg Abbott, for allowing the language to become part of the Texas Constitution. Radnofsky called on Abbott to acknowledge the wording as an error and consider an apology. She also said that another constitutional amendment may be necessary to reverse the problem.
"You do not have to have a fancy law degree to read this and understand what it plainly says," said Radnofsky.
Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said the attorney general stands behind the 4-year-old amendment.
"The Texas Constitution and the marriage statute are entirely constitutional," Strickland said without commenting further on Radnofsky’s statements. "We will continue to defend both in court."
A conservative leader whose organization helped draft the amendment dismissed Radnofsky’s position, saying it was similar to scare tactics opponents unsuccessfully used against the proposal in 2005.
"It’s a silly argument," said Kelly Shackelford, president of the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano. Any lawsuit based on the wording of Subsection B, he said, would have "about one chance in a trillion" of being successful.
Shackelford said the clause was designed to be broad enough to prevent the creation of domestic partnerships, civil unions or other arrangements that would give same-sex couples many of the benefits of marriage.
Radnofsky acknowledged that the clause is not likely to result in an overnight dismantling of marriages in Texas. But she said the wording opens the door to legal claims involving spousal rights, insurance claims, inheritance and a host other marriage-related issues.
"This breeds unneeded arguments, lawsuits and expense which could have been avoided by good lawyering," Radnofsky said. "Yes, I believe the clear language of B bans all marriages, and this is indeed a huge mistake."
In October, Dallas District Judge Tena Callahan ruled that the same-sex-marriage ban is unconstitutional because it stands in the way of gay divorce. Abbott is appealing the ruling, which came in a divorce petition involving two men who were married in Massachusetts in 2006.
Radnofsky, the Democratic nominee in the Senate race against Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2006, said she voted against the amendment but didn’t realize the legal implications until she began poring over the Texas Constitution to prepare for the attorney general’s race. She said she holds Abbott and his office responsible for not catching an "error of massive proportions."
"Whoever vetted the language in B must have been asleep at the wheel," she said.
Abbott, a former state Supreme Court justice who was elected attorney general in 2002, has not indicated whether he will seek re-election and is known to be interested in running for lieutenant governor. Ted Cruz, who served as solicitor general under Abbott, is running for attorney general in the Republican primary.