The case could have sweeping national implications, depending on how the federal appeals panel rules on a challenge to the state’s same-sex marriage ban and whether the case returns to the high court.
Utah asked the Supreme Court to intervene last week after 10th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to stay a lower court ruling in December striking down Utah’s voter-approved prohibition of legal wedlock for gays and lesbians.
Hundreds of people sought marriage licenses following U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling that said the restriction, approved in 2004, conflicted with the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor received the Utah petition and then asked her colleagues to weigh in.
The court followed up with a two-sentence order without comment that puts same-sex marriages on hold in Utah only.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the Supreme Court made the “correct” decision to stay Shelby’s ruling.
“As I have said all along, all Utahns deserve to have this issue resolved through a fair and complete judicial process. I firmly believe this is a state-rights issue and I will work to defend the position of the people of Utah and our State Constitution,” he said in a statement.
One question arising from the Supreme Court ruling is the status of those who received marriage licenses after Shelby’s ruling. The Utah Attorney General’s office put the figure at around 950, but it was not clear how many people actually wed.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes gave no indication on Monday whether the state would try to challenge the validity of those unions.
“There is not clear legal precedence for this particular situation. This is the uncertainty that we were trying to avoid by asking the district court for a stay immediately after its decision. It is very unfortunate that so many Utah citizens have been put into this legal limbo,” Reyes said in a statement.
The appeals panel in Denver is expected to consider the case again in coming weeks more thoroughly. A ruling there could affect all states within the court’s jurisdiction: Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
More recently, same-sex marriage legal battles have become prominent in states where it is prohibited. But the Utah case is a broad challenge that goes to the heart of constitutional law as it applies to the state ban and could wind up back at the Supreme Court. Same-sex couples say laws like Utah’s violate their equal protection and due process rights.
“It could be the challenge that a lot of people have been waiting for, which is does the United States Constitution guarantee a right to marriage for everyone,” said CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin. “That’s the issue in this case and it’s now working its way through the courts. It could take quite some time.”
The Supreme Court ruled more narrowly this past summer on separate issues involving same-sex marriage.
It cleared the way for those unions in California to resume and rejected parts of a federal law, concluding same-sex spouses legally married in a state may receive federal benefits.
Most states still ban the practice, but polls show more support for it publicly.
Same-sex advocates look to Shelby’s arguments to sway the appeals panel.
“Despite today’s decision, we are hopeful that the lower court’s well-reasoned decision will be upheld in the end and that courts across the country will continue to recognize that all couples should have the freedom to marry,” Joshua Block, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
The lawsuit considered by Shelby was brought by one gay and two lesbian couples in Utah who wish to marry but have been unable to do so because of the state ban.
Same-sex marriage is banned by constitutional amendment or state law in: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
It is legal in 17 other U.S states and the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
The case is Herbert v. Kitchen. (13A687)