A couple residing in Winnebago County, Illinois, was denied the right to get married. Colette Purifoy has been with her partner John Morris for 38 years now. They have children together and have been seeking a marriage license for the past six months. What's stopping them? In the eyes of the law, John is unable to give his consent due to brain damage.
A few years ago, John checked into OSF St. Anthony's Hospital in Rockford, Illinois, for what he thought would be simple surgery. Due to a complication that occurred while he was being anesthetized, John's brain was starved of oxygen, resulting in permanent physical damage. Today he is in a vegetative state, in need of constant live-in care.
Moments before he was to go under the knife, John proposed to Colette for a second time. And, for the second time, she said yes.
The future these two had in mind after John's surgery was to finally have a big wedding. They didn't see the tragedy that was ahead, and now John is incapable of physically saying the words “I do.” He cannot leave his home or sign his name on a sheet of paper. Because of this, he is denied the right to marry the woman he has been with for nearly 40 years. The legal relationship these two now share is that of guardian and ward.
OSF St Anthony's Hospital, where John received his injury.
When John became disabled, the court appointed Colette as his guardian, since she was the closest person in his life. While Colette cannot marry John, as his guardian she could choose to end his life if he were on life support. If they were already married, she could choose to divorce him. His consent does not come into question on those matters. She just can't marry him—something they had already delayed in the past due to financial reasons and family obligatoins. Colette only wants the marriage license now as a symbol of her devotion and in order to fulfill his last verbal wish.
I spoke with Colette's lawyer, Nathan Reyes, concerning this unusual case.
VICE: What exactly is John's current physical condition?
Nathan Reyes: It's tough to describe John's current condition. He can breathe on his own, his eyes are open and he can react to some stimuli. However he cannot speak and needs assistance to eat, and transportation and requires around-the-clock nursing care. Medically speaking, his physicians have diagnosed him as being in a vegetative state, but I don't want it to seem as if he is completely immobile and hooked up to life support, because that is not the case.
I remember reading a while back about the possibility of communication between those who are paralyzed through eye movement. Is anything like that possible for John?
I know that there have been numerous neuro consults, rehabilitation specialists, and countless hours spent on assessing his condition. I do not know if anything relating to eye blinking has been performed, but given his three to four years of intensive care I would be surprised if it hadn't. As far as the physicians are concerned, however, John is uncommunicative. However, Colette believes otherwise, and I have no reason to doubt her.
I find it interesting that the court initially allowed the marriage to happen. What stopped it after going that far?
When we went to the county clerk to issue the marriage license, she refused. After some negotiating we ended up having to file a new lawsuit referred to as a Mandamus action
in order to hopefully get the clerk to issue the license. Our argument was that, as John's legal guardian, Colette can enter into any contract or perform any act that would effectuate the ward's wishes. No one doubted that the ward's wishes were to be married, so we felt that Colette would be allowed to initiate a marriage proceeding, and thus bypass any physical appearance or consent issues, since the guardian and special guardian would be consenting on behalf of the ward.
The court was well aware of John's intent to marry Colette, and even stated so during the issuance of its ruling. However John's wishes only get us halfway there. They don't get us around the Marriage and Dissolution Act.
Couldn't Colette go to a different clerk in a different county?
While we could go to a different county, I imagine that another clerk would probably be wary of accepting an out-of-county order for an out-of-county resident. I believe their best shot is to stay in Winnebago County and follow the judicial process.
I'm assuming a question that is probably coming into a lot of people's minds is, why did they wait so long to get married?
Colette has said that they wanted a big wedding, but life got in the way. Financial concerns drew their attention and they focused on raising their children and providing a home for them rather than on a wedding. She has also said that they felt like they were married and at that time didn't feel the need for the piece of paper to tell them what they already had. The reason things changed is directly tied to the November 2009 surgery. When John was capable of speech and letting people know his needs, it was clear to everyone that he and Colette were a long-term couple. However when John became hurt, legally, Colette became a nonentity under the law in relation to John. Now Colette wants to be married to not only wipe away that idea that she is just some "stranger" to John but also to fulfill his last wishes.
What must be done in order to let these two marry? Would you have to amend the Marriage and Dissolution Act?
Two things would have to change for our argument to succeed. The first would be an appellate-court ruling interpreting the Probate Act to indeed allow for a marriage proceeding. This would most likely require an Illinois Supreme Court ruling, but that is, unfortunately, years in the making at a minimum. Our first step would be to appeal to the Second Appellate District, wait for their ruling, and then, if necessary head to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The alternative would be for the Illinois legislature to either amend the Probate Act or the Marriage and Dissolution Act to allow for marriages under fact patterns such as ours to proceed.
This is a one-of-a-kind case, and it seems as though amending these acts for one couple is a bit extreme.
As an attorney I can easily see why Judge Fabiano ruled the way she did. The laws in question do not appear, on the face of it, to have much leeway. However, as was noted at oral argument, things like this are going to happen more often as medicine advances and people survive injuries that normally they would not. While this is the first case I have seen like it, it doesn't take much stretch of the imagination to see it happening again.
More about the legal system: