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Appeals panel overturns lower court ruling in name-change case

PHOENIX -- What you want to call yourself legally is no one's business but your own, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

In a precedent-setting decision, the three-judge panel overturned a ruling by Yuma County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Kenworthy denying a bid by Valeria Cortez to change his name -- and without even giving him a hearing. In his order, Kenworthy dismissed the application for "failure to show good cause.''

But appellate Judge David Weinzweig said there was no legal basis for Kenworthy to reach that conclusion.

He said nothing in Arizona law requires someone seeking a legal name change to provide "good cause'' -- or, for that matter, any cause at all.

Attorney Abigail Jensen of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance said the ruling is a significant victory, and not just for those who are going through gender reassignment. She said it sends a message to judges that they don't get to second-guess the names that people choose for themselves.

"So if someone wants to use a name that other people might think is frivolous, that's not grounds to deny the name change,'' Jensen said.

That is pretty much what the appellate court ruled.

According to court records, Cortez filed the paperwork earlier this year to change his name legally to Sebastian Tomas Valentine.''

That form requires an applicant to swear that the name change was "solely for his benefit and his best interests.'' It also requires those going through the process to say that they understand a name change does not provide a release from legal obligations, that they don't seek a name change to commit any crime, including forgery and theft, that they had never been convicted of a felony, and that they faced no pending criminal charges.

The form also asks applicants to explain the reason for the request.

"I am transition and want my documents to match my identity,'' Cortez responded. Kenworthy rejected the petition six days later.

Weinzweig said that was not within Kenworthy's power.

He said the name-change statute lists the criteria the "court shall consider'' in whether to grant the name change. That, Weinzweig said, goes to the questions in the application.

Nowhere in the law is there a mandate for an applicant to to provide a reason, even if there is a space for that on the form.

"The statute has no good cause requirement,'' Weinzweig wrote. And he said there was nothing else that gave Kenworthy any reason to reject the request.

"The application raised no concern that Cortez wanted to change his name for any fraudulent or criminal purposes,'' the appellate judge wrote.

Weinzweig also made a special note to say that there's nothing different -- or special -- about this case.

"We reject any argument that the court properly denied Cortez's application based on his gender-transition rationale,'' he said. "At bottom, whether framed as a question of 'good cause' or 'best interest,' the statute does not permit the superior court to deny a person's name-change request only because the person wants the new name to reflect a gender transition.''

"That's really important for trans people,'' Jensen said. "Many judges don't think people should change their names if they change gender, that somehow it's deceptive.''

Jensen said that, legally speaking, it actually isn't necessary for someone to get a court order to change a name. She said that can be done under common law by someone simply starting to refer himself or herself by the new name.

Still, Jensen said, a court order can prove helpful.

"It's difficult to convince banks and credit card companies, Social Security to change your name based on this common-law usage,'' she explained. "So if it's important that you to be able to get everything to match at the same time, then a court order will give you that.''

There was no immediate response from Judge Kenworthy.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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