Christmas Comes Early: Federal judge strikes down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage

I mentioned last week that Ben and I are hanging out in Georgia for the holiday break, so this post will be my only one for the week. But I couldn’t sign off without talking about the exciting news from Friday.  It seems that Christmas has come early for gays in Utah. 

On Friday, a federal judge struck down Utah’s gay marriage ban. And as usual, I have some takeaways:

1)   Federal Case, not state case: For those of you not familiar with our court structure, the judicial branch has a two-court system – state courts and federal courts. I’ll spare you the civil procedure lesson regarding jurisdiction and how they share power, but a very important distinction between the two comes from the fact that the federal court system deals with legal issues expressly or implicitly granted by the U.S. Constitution, while the state court system deals with problems regarding the state’s constitution. Drama ensues, however, when the two conflict. And unlike the New Mexico case (as well as the cases in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Jersey) where the plaintiffs argued the state law violated the state constitution, this case argued that the state law violated the federal constitution. This distinction could have far-reaching implications.

2)   Violation of 14th Amendment: In his 53-page opinion, Judge Robert Shelby said the Utah ban violates the Due Process Clause of the 14th amendment. “The state’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason,” he wrote. In addition, he claimed the “fears and speculations are insufficient to justify the State’s refusal to dignify the family relationships of its gay and lesbian citizens.“ Pretty strong, favorable language.

3)   Making other states nervous: This case is only the second time a federal court has voided a state constitutional amendment. The other case, California’s Perry v. Schwarzenegger, made it to the Supreme Court this past summer but was decided on very narrow grounds that those defending the law didn’t have standing to do so. Should the case get back to the Supreme Court and the court decide that these laws do indeed violate the 14th amendment, potentially no state would be allowed to have these types of restrictions. In other words, the 31 states that currently have a law banning same-sex marriage could no longer keep gay and lesbian couples from marrying.  Conversely, if the Supreme Court says the state’s law doesn’t violate the 14th Amendment, these types of laws remain valid, unless undone by the state itself. That type of ruling shouldn’t affect those states that have already allowed same-sex marriages.

4)   Many couples already Married: NPR reported that within minutes of the decision, the Salt Lake County Clerk’s office was inundated with gay couples seeking marriage licenses. Other reports claim that over a 100 same-sex couples have already wed, with even more lining up this morning.  If you haven’t seen any of the pictures of the lines yet, you must check them out.

5)  Emergency Stay:  The state vowed to appeal the ruling and asked for an emergency stay to prevent county clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Shelby held a hearing this morning for arguments of why the court should grant the stay. The state argued that if a higher court overturns Shelby’s ruling, it will leave those same-sex couples who married in Utah under a "cloud of uncertainty.” As of this writing, Shelby has not ruled. I’ll make sure to update it, once it happens. Judge Shelby denied the state’s request to stay the ruling. So for now, same-sex couples can continue to marry. The state is expected to appeal to the circuit court that has previously denied the request because it was premature.

Another exciting case! We will see what the coming weeks and months bring.

In the meantime, I hope all of you celebrating the Christmas holiday have a very merry Christmas.