Friday, May 11, 2018

Texas' Highest Criminal Court Upholds Law Punishing Sexual Assault By Polygamists More Harshly

In Estes v. State of Texas, (TX Ct. Crim. App., May 9, 2018), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, reversing the Court of Appeals, upheld the constitutionality of a Texas statute that provides higher penalties for polygamists who sexually assault their purported spouses than for other sexual assaults.  Defendant argued that the statute had the effect of treating married people more harshly than others.  The majority held that where, as here, the assault victim was a minor, it is enough that the state had a rational basis for the distinction it drew, saying in part:
[T]he Legislature could rationally conclude that to be a married man or woman is to project the kind of “stability” and “safe haven” that many children find comfort in.... And it could rationally see fit to declare that one who would enjoy this marital perception of trustworthiness will be punished all the more severely if he uses it to groom, and then sexually abuse, a child.
Judge Newell, joined by Judges Hervey and Richardson, filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, saying:
[W]hile I ultimately agree with the Court that the legislative classification is rationally related to a legitimate state interest, I disagree with the Court’s chosen path to that result....
The State’s interest in protecting children does not explain why a legislative distinction between married and unmarried defendants is rational. It only serves to make the State’s argument supporting that distinction look more substantial....
Ultimately, the resolution of this case turns upon the level of scrutiny we must apply in our evaluation of the statute at issue. Does strict scrutiny apply because the distinction between married and unmarried offenders significantly interferes with the fundamental right to marry? Rather than remand the case to the court of appeals to decide the issue, I would address the issue head-on. The answer is no.
Judge Alcala dissented without filing a separate opinion.