On January 6th, we reported on the pending application for a stay filed with the United States Supreme Court by the State of Utah, requesting that the High Court halt the enforcement of a December 20th ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby which invalidated Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage on the grounds it violates guarantees of due process and equal protection under the United States Constitution. After similar requests for a stay were denied by Judge Shelby and also by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Utah was afforded speedy relief by the Supreme Court, which granted its application within a week after it was filed with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who referred it to the full court for consideration.
The Supreme Court, in a one paragraph Order consisting of two sentences, ruled that gay marriages cannot continue while Utah’s appeal of the ruling is pending in the Tenth Circuit. The Court’s unanimous ruling contained no commentary which could offer a glimpse into the reasoning leading the Court to grant the stay.
Up until the entry of the High Court’s order, nearly 1,000 same-sex marriages were performed in Utah subsequent to Judge Shelby’s ruling. Immediately after the Court’s issuance of the stay, more questions arose, particularly whether those marriages performed within that two-week period will be recognized as valid. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes – who took office only last week – commented that no decision had yet been made about whether to take legal action against the marriages that have occurred, and stated that “[t]his 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.”
Many observers believe that this case will ultimately find its way back to the United States Supreme Court for a decision on the merits, having sweeping implications across the country. The ruling by Judge Shelby answered the question which the High Court had avoided in its ruling on gay marriage filed this past June in United States v. Windsor: whether state bans on same-sex marriage violate an individual’s constitutional rights.
Judge Shelby rendered the first federal decision to extend the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Windsor to hold that a state law prohibiting same-sex marriage is constitutionally invalid. He wrote that “[t]he Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor to strike down [provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act] DOMA was based on the liberty of individuals to form intimate relationships without being demeaned or degraded by the government.” Further, Judge Shelby determined that each and every justification advanced by Utah for passing a law restricting same-sex couples from the fundamental right to marry had already been rejected by the Court in Windsor.
Although the Tenth Circuit had denied Utah’s request for a stay, it did place the matter on an expedited schedule, requiring all briefing to be completed by the end of February. Indeed, it already appears that 2014 will be a year full of rulings on issues concerning same-sex marriage, as dozens of lawsuits are currently pending across the country seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples.