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Paula Christiansen v. Victoria Lee Christiansen

June 6, 2011

PAULA CHRISTIANSEN, APPELLANT (PLAINTIFF),
v.
VICTORIA LEE CHRISTIANSEN, APPELLEE (DEFENDANT).



Appeal from the District Court of Niobrara County The Honorable Keith G. Kautz, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Golden, Justice.

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] Paula Christiansen and Victoria Lee Christiansen are both residents of Wyoming. They were legally married in Canada in 2008. Paula Christiansen filed an action for divorce in Wyoming in February 2010. The district court determined it did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain an action to dissolve a same-sex marriage. Accordingly, the district court dismissed the action. We reverse and remand for the reinstatement of the divorce proceeding.

ISSUE

[¶2] The narrow issue in this appeal is whether a Wyoming district court has subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain a divorce action to dissolve a same-sex marriage lawfully performed in Canada.*fn1

DISCUSSION

[¶3] The facts are simple. Paula and Victoria were validly married in Canada and seek a divorce in Wyoming, where they reside. The district court, after engaging in a review of the pertinent statutes, dismissed the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The district court reasoned that "the jurisdictional grant to dissolve marriages is premised on the definition of marriage." Since Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-1-101 (LexisNexis 2009) defines a marriage, in pertinent part, as "a civil contract between a male and a female person," the district court determined "the Wyoming Statutes do not grant the Court jurisdiction to dissolve a same-sex marriage."

[¶4] We disagree with the district court's conclusion. First, we emphasize that the issue before this Court is limited to whether a district court has subject-matter jurisdiction to dissolve a same-sex marriage validly solemnized in Canada. Subject-matter jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong. Granite Springs Retreat Ass'n, Inc. v. Manning, 2006 WY 60, ¶ 5, 133 P.3d 1005, 1009 (Wyo. 2006). Subject-matter jurisdiction is essential to the exercise of judicial power. Id. at 1009-10. If a court does not have subject-matter jurisdiction, it lacks any authority to proceed. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Kunz, 2008 WY 71, ¶ 6, 186 P.3d 378, 380 (Wyo. 2008). The existence of subject-matter jurisdiction involves a question of law, and our review is de novo. Brown v. City of Casper, 2011 WY 35, ¶ 8, 248 P.3d 1136, 1139 (Wyo. 2011).

[¶5] In determining whether the district court has subject-matter jurisdiction in this case, we begin by noting that district courts are endowed with broad subject-matter jurisdiction. District courts in Wyoming are courts of superior and general jurisdiction. Urbach v. Urbach, 52 Wyo. 207, 224, 73 P.2d 953, 960 (1937). They derive their judicial powers from the Wyoming Constitution:

The judicial power of the state shall be vested in the senate, sitting as a court of impeachment, in a supreme court, district courts, and such subordinate courts as the legislature may, by general law, establish and ordain from time to time.

Wyo. Const. art. 5, § 1. They have original jurisdiction over all cases, excepting only cases placed within the exclusive jurisdiction of another court:

The district court shall have original jurisdiction of all causes both at law and in equity and in all criminal cases, of all matters of probate and insolvency and of such special cases and proceedings as are not otherwise provided for. The district court shall also have original jurisdiction in all cases and of all proceedings in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court[.]

Id., art. 5, § 10. Specific to this appeal, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-104 (LexisNexis 2009) expressly places subject-matter jurisdiction to entertain ...


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