by Michael K. Lavers
A judge on the Panama Supreme Court has reportedly issued a draft ruling on whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.
La Estrella, a Panamanian newspaper, on Oct. 20 reported Justice Luis Ramon Fabrega has concluded the two portions of the country’s family code that prevent gays and lesbians from marrying in the Central American country are not unconstitutional. La Estrella also reported the draft ruling “leaves the door open for members of the National Assembly” to “legislate on civil unions between people of the same sex.”
“Equality must be constitutionally guaranteed via the law,” wrote Fabrega, according to La Estrella. “It is incumbent upon the Assembly to pass the necessary laws to comply with the purposes and the exercise of the state’s duties as outlined under the constitution.”
A Panamanian television station reported it obtained a copy of the draft ruling from sources within the country’s judiciary, even though it has not been released publicly.
Lawyer: We have ‘a really solid case’
A gay couple filed a lawsuit in which they seek formal recognition of their U.K. marriage in Panama. A second lawsuit challenges the provisions of the Panamanian family code that bans same-sex couples from marrying.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in both lawsuits over the summer. They have been combined into one case.
Carlos Ernesto Gonzalez, a lawyer from Morgan & Morgan, which is the largest law firm in Panama, represents the plaintiffs in the marriage cases. Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson; Hunter T. Carter of the New York City Bar Association, who works with advocates throughout Latin America who are seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples in their respective countries, and Herman Duarte of the Costa Rica-based Fundacion Igualitos are among those who filed amicus briefs with the court.
Ivan Chanis Barahona, a gay Panamanian lawyer who once lived in D.C., is working pro bono on the cases.
He told the Washington Blade last month during an interview in Panama City that Fabrega will share his ruling with the eight other judges on the Supreme Court. Chanis said he was optimistic the Supreme Court would rule in favor of the plaintiffs, even though it remains unclear when it would release their final decision.
“We have a really solid case,” Chanis told the Blade.
Neighboring Colombia is among the Latin America countries and jurisdictions in which same-sex couples can legally marry.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012 ruled in favor of Karen Atala, a lesbian judge from Chile who lost custody of her three daughters to her ex-husband because of her sexual orientation. The landmark decision established a legal precedent throughout Latin America.
Panamanian First Lady Lorena Castillo — who was the grand marshal of Panama City’s Pride parade in July — and Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo are among the officials who publicly support marriage rights for same-sex couples. The Panamanian Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups have spearheaded the opposition to the issue.
Chanis noted to the Blade that President Juan Carlos Varela — who is Catholic — has “never gone all the way to say yes or no to marriage equality.” Chanis said Varela “flirted with the idea of civil partnerships” for same-sex couples during an interview.