NEW YORK – New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has ruled that a marriage between a half-uncle and a half-niece is legal in a unanimous court decision.
According to the ruling, while “parent-child and brother-sister marriages . . . are grounded in the almost universal horror with which such marriages are viewed . . . there is no comparably strong objection to uncle-niece marriages.”
The case revolved around a 34-year-old Vietnamese citizen Huyen Nguyen, 34, who appealed to a ruling by an immigration judge declaring that her marriage in 2000 in Rochester was invalid. This ruling would have resulted to her deportation from the United States. Her husband, Vu Truong, 38, was her mother’s half-brother. According to the couple’s lawyer, Michael Marscalkowski, the case was not done for immigration purposes. The couple has stayed together for more than 14 years and husband Vu Truong works as a truck driver. They have no children together.
“This really was an all-or-nothing issue for them,” Marscalkowski commented. “If this would have been denied, she would have been deported and sent back to Vietnam.”
Marscalkowski said he won the case by focusing on the statutory provisions of the state’s domestic-relations law.
The statute provided that “a marriage is incestuous and void whether the relatives are legitimate or illegitimate between either: 1. An ancestor and a descendant; 2. A brother and sister of either the whole or half-blood; 3. An uncle and niece or an aunt and nephew.”
Incest is a crime punishable by a $50 to $100 fine and up to six months in jail.
On the matter of consanguinity or blood relations, Marscalkowski argued during court proceedings, that half-uncles and nieces share the same level of genetic ties as first cousins. This would only result to only one-eighth of the DNA.
“It really was the equivalent of cousins marrying, which has been allowed in New York state for well over 100 years,” Marszalkowski said.
The six-person panel of judges reviewing the case acknowledged that while they are not scientists, they noted that the “genetic risk in a half-uncle, half-niece relationship is half what it would be if the parties were related by the full blood.” This would lessen any genetic abnormalities that would result from children born from the union.
Drawing from past case decisions, Judge Robert Smith of the Court of Appeals opined that such marriages were lawful in New York until 1893 and it is still lawful in Rhode Island.
Judge Victoria Graffeo and two other judges on the panel, however, hesitated on their opinion, stating that Legislature should revisit the issue.
“Such relationships could implicate one of the purposes underlying incest laws, i.e., ‘maintaining the stability of the family hierarchy by protecting young family members from exploitation by older family members in positions of authority, and by reducing competition and jealous friction among family members,’ Graffeo wrote.
Michael Stutman from the firm Mischon de Reya, an independent attorney and family relations expert, said that the ruling reflects the realities of contemporary American families.
Stutman commented that “as people are more mobile and living longer marriages are ending and people remarry and you get blended families with step children and half children.”
Commenting on the rationale behind the court decision, Stutman argues “There are plenty of other societies that allow so-called intermarriage without worrying about genetic defects. And frankly we have a long history of cousins marrying each other, take FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt,” he said.
However, Jason McGuire, executive director of the conservative civil rights group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, implied that this court’s decision would create a dangerous legal precedent.
“If government’s only interest in marriage is who loves each other, than what logical stopping point is there?” McGuire said.