SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court put the brakes on same-sex marriage in Utah on Monday, setting up a legal battle in federal appeals court that could eventually wend its way back to the high court.
Meantime, the status of gay and lesbian couples who tied the knot in Utah the past two weeks or obtained marriage licenses but haven't wed is unclear.
The Supreme Court granted the state's emergency application for a stay in a two-sentence order that appears to have included all nine justices without a dissenting vote. The order will remain in place pending the outcome of Utah's appeal of U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby's ruling last month that struck down the voter-approved law defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
"The ruling can be interpreted as an indication that the court wants to have further exploration in lower courts of the basic constitutional question of state power to limit marriage to a man and a woman," according to Lyle Denniston on the U.S. Supreme Court blog.
"Had it refused the state’s request for delay, that would have left at least the impression that the court was comfortable allowing same-sex marriages to go forward in the 33 states where they are still not permitted by state law."
The Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which earlier denied the state's request for a stay, has outlined an accelerated schedule for the appeal of Shelby's ruling. Utah's first arguments are due Jan. 27. A response from attorneys for the three gay and lesbian couples who challenged the law is due Feb. 18. Any reply from the state must be filed by Feb. 25.
Reaction on both sides of the issueBill Duncan, head of the Utah-based Marriage Law Foundation, called the Supreme Court order a "very positive" development. "We said from the beginning that Judge Shelby should have issued the stay, and the Supreme Court seems to be affirming that — not only one justice but the entire court, and we assume without any dissent since there was none noted in the decision this morning," he said.
How does the stay affect the marriages of same-sex couples?Newly appointed Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said the Supreme Court order takes Utah back to where it was before Shelby's ruling. Reyes said he doesn't know what it means for the nearly 1,000 same-sex marriages performed in the state since Dec. 21. He described those couples as being in "legal limbo." "There is no precedence, I believe, for this," he said. "This is precisely the uncertainty we were hoping to avoid by requesting a stay immediately upon the decision of the district court."
Lawyers discuss implications of surprising stay
by Carole Mikita
SALT LAKE CITY — Attorneys who spoke with KSL News Monday each said all eyes are on Utah, and will remain so because this case will most likely return to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.
"Today's decision stands as a reminder that the United States Supreme Court reigns supreme in matters of federal law," attorney Paul C. Burke said Monday. "The ruling today also signals that the United States Supreme Court recognizes that this is an issue that touches not just Utah, but the entire nation."
Burke, who represented the Pride Center in the Prop 8 and DOMA case, said the county clerks who granted close to 1,000 marriages licenses to same-sex couples in Utah did so lawfully.
"I have every reason to believe those marriages remain valid until we hear otherwise, specifically from a court," he said.
The law firm of Michael Zimmerman, former Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, will assist Equality Utah in preparing a friend of the court brief to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. But he said this case goes beyond any court, into the heart of Utah.
"It's going to have consequences — subtle, cultural consequences, as well as legal consequences — that I find kind of … it's going to be intriguing, at least."
State leaders and organizations react to stayUniversity of Utah law professor Wayne McCormack said Monday's Supreme Court order surprised him because stays at that level are typically reserved for life-or-death situations such as a pending execution. Noting 18 states allow same-sex marriage, he said, "Where is the irreparable harm to the state in letting this go forward?" McCormack and others believe the marriages should remain intact. “Though future marriages are on hold for now, the state should recognize as valid those marriages that have already been issued, and those couples should continue to be treated as married by the federal government," said John Mejia, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. But Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, called for gay marriages performed in the state before the stay to be "summarily invalidated."
"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."