Gay Rights Advocates Hail 'Extraordinary' Victory After Scotus Refuses to Hear Appeals
In the end, the last word on the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 US states and the District of Columbia may not come with a sweeping and historic ruling from the supreme court. In fact, the last word may already have been written with Monday’s terse denial from the justices to hear any of the pending appeals from the states still defending their constitutional bans.
The result: in some of the most conservative states in the union, from Oklahoma to Utah, county clerks began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples eagerly lining up to take advantage of their unexpected new rights, even as Republican governors expressed impotent frustration at the outcome.
Same-sex marriage became immediately legal in Indiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin and Utah. Because the court’s decision lifted stays on circuit court rulings, it also created a path for six other states. In Colorado, a stay on the implementation of a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage automatically fell as a result of the supreme court decision, and in some counties there, marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples on Monday.
Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming could follow in the next few weeks or months because of the precedent set by the the circuit courts, whose rulings now stand because of the decision by the supreme court not to take up any of the appeals.
According to some estimates, as many as 60% of Americans now live in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
Tim Rhodes, the county clerk for Oklahoma County, the largest in the state, said Monday marked the first time that marriage licenses irrespective of gender had been issued there. “Not only in Oklahoma County, but all 77 counties, the entire state of Oklahoma,” Rhodes said. “It’s always been a requirement of Oklahoma law, as far as I know, and certainly as long as I’ve been court clerk, that our applicants must be of opposite gender. So that’s very significant that that requirement is no longer in the law.”
Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Cimarron Alliance Equality Center, an advocacy organization for the LGBTQ community in Oklahoma, said news was “enormous.”
“The excitement in the community is extraordinary,” he said. “We have some individuals of course who have been waiting decades for this, and they’re anxious to get married just as quickly as they can find a judge to do it.”
In Salt Lake City, the three gay couples who filed the lawsuit challenging Utah’s ban spoke at an emotional news conference. “If there’s a downside, it’s only that this doesn’t apply nationwide immediately,” said Kate Call, one of the plaintiffs. She predicted gay marriage bans in other states would “fall like dominos”.
In places where district courts have already ruled, state bans could fall quickly. In states where litigation is pending, it could take longer. “The further along the litigation is, the faster it will go,” said Jane Schacter, William Nelson Cromwell professor at Stanford Law School.
A district court, however, could rule that a case before it is different enough from the ones denied on Monday and allow a new appeal.
Wyoming governor Matt Mead said that the decision has “no impact” on the case in state’s district court, despite it being a part of the tenth circuit, one of the jurisdictions covered by an earlier ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, that now stands because of the legal consequences of the supreme court’s decision on Monday.
“The attorney general will continue to defend Wyoming’s constitution defining marriage between a man and a woman,” Mead said.
Four of the five states represented by the rejected positions have republican attorney generals who had argued against same-sex marriage, but they all agreed to abide by the court’s decision. The fifth, the Virginia attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, officiated at least one marriage on Monday afternoon.
Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said in January that he would no longer defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. He called Monday’s decision “a historic and long overdue moment for our commonwealth and our country.”
Indiana and Wisconsin conceded their cases early on Monday morningand attorney generals in Oklahoma and Utah said they were “disappointed” by the decision.
Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin issued the sharpest condemnation of them all, saying : “The will of the people has now been overridden by unelected federal justices, accountable to no one. That is both undemocratic and a violation of states’ rights. Rather than allowing states to make their own policies that reflect the values and views of their residents, federal judges have inserted themselves into a state issue to pursue their own agendas.”
But her attorney general, Scott Pruitt admitted there was nothing the state could do. “Though I disagree with the federal courts on these issues,” Pruitt said in an email to the Guardian, “the court’s decision is law.”
Legal experts were deeply surprised that the nine-justice supreme court dropped cases concerning such a high-profile and historic issue, especially because people on both sides of the case had requested the supreme court to review the issue, a rare occurrence.
“The supreme court sent a signal today that most people would interpret – and this could end up being wrong – but most people would interpret as there are probably five votes for marriage equality on the US supreme court,” said Schacter.
Monday’s decision has put even more focus on the sixth circuit, which is due to rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage at any time. The circuit’s three judge panel could issue a ruling in either direction, but is the top contender thus far for breaking the streak of decisions in favor of marriage equality.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg increased focus on circuit courts where cases are pending in September, when she said that if the sixth circuit decides to uphold the bans, “there will be some urgency” for the supreme court to take up the cases.
The ninth circuit is also expected to make a decision soon, though its very liberal panel is almost guaranteed to rule in favor of same-sex marriage. The fifth and eleventh could also break the marriage equality streak, though litigation in those cases is behind the ninth and sixth.