By Daniel Wiessner
ALBANY N.Y.(Reuters) - Nearly a century after the same court annulled a marriage between an uncle and his half-niece, New York's top court said on Tuesday that a woman's union with her half-uncle was lawful.
U.S. immigration officials in 2007 said Vietnamese citizen Huyen Nguyen's marriage in 2000 to her mother's half-brother, U.S. citizen Vu Truong, was void and sought to deport her. A federal appeals court asked the New York Court of Appeals to decide whether such marriages were lawful.
Nguyen was aged 19 and Truong was 24 when they got married.
The U.S. Justice Department claimed an 1893 state law that bars marriages between "a brother and sister of either the whole or the half blood," as well as "uncles and nieces or aunts and nephews," applied to Nguyen and Truong.
Nguyen's attorneys countered that the law was designed to ensure stability within families and stave off the risks associated with close relatives having children. Neither of those concerns applied in Nguyen's case, they said.
In a 6-0 decision siding with Nguyen, Judge Robert Smith wrote, "First cousins are allowed to marry in New York, and I conclude that it was not the Legislature's purpose to avert the similar, relatively small, genetic risk inherent in relationships like this one."
The decision by the court in Albany, which allows Nguyen to remain in the United States, went against a 1921 ruling in which the court said a man's marriage to his half-brother's daughter was void.
Kathryn Audley had sought a divorce from her father's half-brother, whom she accused of adultery, but the court said it was unnecessary because the marriage was unlawful.
Nguyen's lawyer, Michael Marszalkowski, said he was pleased with Tuesday's ruling.
"This couple every day has worried about whether they have a future together," he said.
The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.
According to court documents, Maine is the only state that expressly allows marriages between uncles and nieces or aunts and nephews. Courts in four states, including Kansas and Missouri, have upheld such marriages, while about 30 states have banned them.
The case is Huyen Nguyen v. Eric Holder, New York State Court of Appeals, No. 146.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Ted Botha and Richard Chang)