Friday, July 22, 2005

Meagher v. Maleki (Cal. Ct. App. - July 18, 2005)

I love this case. Just love it. First of all, I didn't know that we actually granted annulments here in California, a state in which it's pretty easy to get a straight-up divorce. I mean, I guess I knew that we probably granted them, but I didn't know of anyone who got one or why you would (other than, obviously, religious reasons, but that's an annulment decision by the religious organization, not necessarily by the state). And this case made me realize -- duh! -- why you might well prefer an annulment: namely, for money reasons. (Here, the wife wants an annulment because her husband said he was hugely wealthy and they made a lot of money in various real estate investments -- with wife's cash -- before wife found out that husband wasn't rich.) Stop thinking religion and morality, Shaun. It's always about the money. Money money money.

Second, I didn't know that we also had a pretty well-developed body of case law about when you can get 'em. I would have assumed -- merely reasoning from first principles -- that you get an annulment when the marriage really didn't work from the outset, or the decision to get married was made in haste and an annulment quickly sought, etc. Which just shows what a moron I am. Rather, the cases in which annulments are granted, at least as categorized by Justice Ruvolo, are all about fraudulent inducement of the marriage. And, by the way, as he makes clear, they're all -- or at least all but one -- about one thing. Sex.

Sex and money. Sex and money. That's the message for today. God, I love America.

Anyway, back to the doctrine, as Justice Ruvolo explains, the only types of fraud for which we're willing to grant an annulment are those frauds that the state recognizes go to the "heart" of the marriage. And those things -- those key marital principles -- almost universally concern sex. So, as he explains, we're willing to grant annulments when a spouse gets married with a secret intention never to have sex with his or her spouse. Or is secretly sterile. Or is secretly pregnant by another man. Or secretly intends to continue an existing (soon-to-be adulterous) affair. Those go to the "heart" of the marriage. But Justice Ruvolo can only find one non-sex case granting an annulment, and that one's an egregious situation in which the husband is secretly a criminal (and on parole) and has secretly abandoned his kids etc. etc. and the Court of Appeal held that the husband's inherent lack of trustworthiness was sufficient to grant an annulment. But that's merely the outlier. And Justice Ruvolo hold that since the present case isn't about sex or as egregious and the only non-sex case he can find, the wife isn't entitled to an annulment. But nonetheless holds out the possibility that the wife might be able to rescind some of the business arrangements using typical contractual remedies for fraud.

Anyway, I found it fascinating to learn about California annulment principles and the continuing centrality of sexual relations as the ostensibly fundamental principle of marriage. Which, of course, is entirely untrue -- if it ever was. Not that I disagreed, by the way, with Justice Ruvolo's holding here. 'Cause I didn't. I could have decided this case in a single paragraph. I'd simply say that the state properly refuses to recognize the value of a marriage entered into for money, and so even if the spouse lies about their money, tough. That's not a basis upon which you should get married. So it's not a basis upon which you can annul one. End of story.

The opinion also got me thinking about a string of hypotheticals. For example, several of those sex cases are from the 1920s and 1940s. Would we still hold, for example, that the sterility of a spouse or being pregnant by another man are grounds for an annulment? And how far does this whole sex thing go? For example, sure, I'm confident that the refusal to have sex at all would still be grounds for an annulment. But what if the spouse was willing to engage in sex, but not Sexual Act X? (The family-friendly policy here demands that I use letters instead of my typical crass language.) Is that grounds? What about Sexual Act Y? And what if the spouse is willing to engage in both X and Y, plus even a little bit of Z (on special occasions), but not intercourse? What about the spouse that's willing to do all of the above, but only on Wednesdays?

The mind boggles at the possibilities. But I'm confident that our judiciary can draw those critical lines that the law demands. Maybe they'd impose, say, a two-sex-a-month minimum. Sort of like a two-drink minimum, but with regard to annulment rather than a nightclub. AND NO SUBSTITUTIONS.

Just order from the menu, please. Thank you for your judicial patronage.

A case for the ages.