The Overlooked Impact of the Recent Appellate Rulings in favor of Same-Sex Marriage

Great news out of Virginia on Monday!

A panel for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s determination that Virginia’s ban on same sex marriage is unconstitutional.

This is the second appellate court this summer to uphold a district court’s striking of a same-sex marriage ban (the 10th Circuit struck down Utah’s ban in June and Oklahoma’s in July), which brings the issue one step closer to the Supreme Court.

You can find some great analysis of the opinion here and here.

While I love dissecting favorable opinions in my posts, I find the decisions in the 4th and 10th circuits encouraging for another reason: their broad impact.

How Federal Courts Work

Simply put, the federal court system has three tiers: district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but those are the three main types.)

District courts are the lowest tier and considered trial courts. The district courts have authority over nearly all federal civil and criminal cases. There are 94 district courts, with at least one in each state, D.C. and Puerto Rico. 

If the loser in the district court wishes to appeal the decision made by the judge, they go to one of 12 court of appeals. The twelve courts represent regional circuits (hence the terms 4th circuit, 10th circuit, etc.).

The court of appeals hears appeals within its circuit. For example, the 4th circuit has jurisdiction over Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The 10th circuit territory includes six states – Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, , and Utah, plus portions of Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Idaho.

The only place left to go after a Court of Appeals decision is the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court hears a limited number of cases that it chooses. These cases can start in either federal or state court, and they usually involve a Constitutional question or one of federal law.

The Courts of Appeals Have Reach

With so much territory covered by each circuit, you can see just how impactful a favorable decision from the Court of Appeals can be. The fact that the Supreme Court hears so few cases only adds to the substantial impact of these appellate decisions.

According to the Supreme Court’s website, the Court receives approximately 10,000 petitions, but it only hears 75-80 cases per year.  Therefore, it’s far more likely that one of the Court of Appeals will have the final say in a case. 

These recent appellate decisions in favor of gay marriage are creating precedent for cases in their circuit, and also provide some backing for other circuits (although you’ll find many times circuits don’t agree on an issue). in other words, given the precedent created in 4th and 10th Circuit, it seems unlikely that district courts in that circuit will find otherwise.

And yes, the legality of same-sex marriage poses a Constitutional question that the Supreme Court should address, but as I’ve said before it may not have to if all of the circuits come to the same conclusion.

These appellate decisions have a lot of significance and are creating momentum that is incredibly encouraging.