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Third Week of November 2014 Was a Busy Week on the Marriage Equality Front

Posted on: November 21st, 2014 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

Things have begun to happen so quickly that I have fallen behind in my blogging on marriage equality developments, so here is a quick summary about events during the third week of November.

Monday, November 17 –  Plaintiffs in the 6th Circuit marriage equality cases from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan finished filing their petitions for certiorari with the Supreme Court.  These are the first petitions for certiorari in marriage equality cases to be filed with the Court since it denied petitions presenting essentially the same constitutional questions on October 6 in cases from Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana and Wisconsin.  Since October 6, the Supreme Court had consistently denied applications to stay district court marriage equality rulings from other states in the 10th and 4th Circuits, as well as applications from states in the 9th Circuit, where the Court of Appeals struck down the Nevada and Idaho bans on same-sex marriage on October 7.  Cert petitions from the Ohio and Tennessee cases had been filed on Friday, November 14, and the petitions from the Michigan and Kentucky cases were filed on November 17.  The state respondents have up to thirty days to file responses, although they are not required to file anything.  There was wide speculation that the Supreme Court will grant one or more of these petitions once the filings are complete and the cases are scheduled for consideration at a conference of the Court.  If one or more petitions are granted by mid-January, it is likely that the cases can be scheduled for argument in the spring with decisions forthcoming by the end of the Court’s term in June.  If the Court takes longer to decide whether to grant a petition, it is possible that these cases would not be argued until the Fall 2015 term, with decisions coming by June 2016.  Thus, as Justice Antonin Scalia predicted in his dissent in the 2013 DOMA ruling, U.S. v. Windsor, the question of same-sex marriage would be back before the Court within a year or two of that ruling.

The speculation about what the Court will do was fueled in part by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments during an appearance at the University of Minnesota Law School in September, when she remarked that the Justices saw no urgency in taking up this issue as long as all the courts of appeals were deciding cases the same way, but that a circuit split would generate such urgency.  She specifically referenced the then-pending 6th Circuit case as possibly meeting that contingency.  Now the 6th Circuit has dropped that bomb, opening up a split with the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuits.

Also on Monday, November 17, Arizona Attorney General Thomas C. Horne filed a notice of appeal in Connolly v. Roche, seeking review of the U.S. District Court’s decision striking down Arizona’s state constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage.  A.G. Horne had not sought a stay in that case, stating at the time that it would be “futile” to seek a stay from the 9th Circuit in light of its October 7 ruling in Latta v. Otter.  However, one suspects that Horne was under terrific political pressure to appeal the ruling regardless, and he announced a motivation of trying to avoid paying a large attorney fee award to the plaintiffs.  Of course, his appeal will contend that the district court erred in striking down the marriage ban.  The 9th Circuit set a deadline of February 25 for the state’s brief in support of its appeal, and set March 27 as the due date for the Appellee’s answering brief, so this case would not be argued until April or later.

Tuesday – November 18.  This was an incredibly busy day for marriage equality developments.  The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down a motion by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson for a stay of the U.S. District Court’s order requiring the state to allow same-sex couples to marry.   Wilson sought the stay pending his filing an appeal in the 4th Circuit from last week’s ruling by the District Court in Condon v. Haley.  As soon as he received the 4th Circuit’s order turning down his request, Wilson filed an “emergency application” with Chief Justice John Roberts seeking a stay from the Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs issued her ruling on a pending summary judgment motion in Bradacs v. Haley, a marriage recognition case, holding the state’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions to be unconstitutional.  The South Carolina Supreme Court had previously blocked the issuance of marriage licenses in the state to same-sex couples pending a ruling by Judge Childs, so her decision, in combination with the 4th Circuit denial of a stay in the Condon case and the lack of any immediate Supreme Court response to Wilson’s application, combined to bring marriage equality to South Carolina beginning on November 19.

There was another important development on November 18.  The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals posted a brief statement on the webpage it had opened up for developments in Hamby v. Parnell, Alaska’s appeal of a December 13 marriage equality ruling.  The state had requested that its appeal go directly to an en banc panel, bypassing the usual three-judge panel, as a three-judge panel would have been bound by the Circuit’s ruling in Latta v. Otter (as to which a petition for rehearing en banc filed by Idaho Governor Butch Otter is pending before the court).  The notice stated: “No active judge has requested a vote to hear this case initially en banc within the time allowed by General Order 5.2a.  The request is therefore denied.”  A briefing schedule order previously issued by the court suggests that the case will not be ready for oral argument until sometime in the spring.  This may also foreshadow a denial of Governor Otter’s pending petition for en banc review.

But that’s not all for November 18.  Also heard from that date was the Kansas Supreme Court, with a ruling in State v. Moriarty, a lawsuit instigated by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt against 10th Judicial District Chief Judge Kevin P. Moriarty, who had responded the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review the 10th Circuit marriage equality cases by deciding that because Kansas was in the 10th Circuit its ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional; thus, Moriarty ordered that clerks under his jurisdiction should begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Schmidt vociferously disagreed, taking the position that Kansas was entitled to its day in court on the constitutionality of its own marriage ban, even though the Kansas ban does not differ in any constitutionally material respect from the bans struck down in Utah and Oklahoma by the 10th Circuit.  Federalism, federalism! cried Schmidt.  The Kansas Supreme Court had responded to Schmidt’s suit by putting a temporary hold on Moriarty’s order.  On November 18, the court issued a somewhat ambiguous decision.  It seems that a federal district court ruled on November 4 that the Kansas ban was unconstitutional, the 10th Circuit had refused to stay that ruling, and the Supreme Court had denied an emergency application by the state for a stay pending appeal to the 10th Circuit.  But the district court’s preliminary injunction in that case specifically named only the clerks in two counties who were named defendants, and Schmidt took the position that no other clerks in the state were bound to issue licenses.  The Kansas Supreme Court’s November 18 decision lifted its temporary stay against Judge Moriarty’s order, but without taking a position on whether the U.S. District Court’s ruling was binding on all Kansas judicial district clerks, while noting of course that a state official, the Secretary of Health and Environment, was also a defendant in the federal case.  By the end of the week there was considerable confusion in Kansas, as many clerks were issuing licenses, others were not, and various state agencies were taking the position that until there was a final appellate resolution of the federal case, they were taking their marching orders from Attorney General Schmidt to deny recognition to same-sex marriages for purposes of state law.  This prompted an announcement by the ACLU that it was considering amending its lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree to seek a broader preliminary injunction ordering the state to recognize the marriages.  The Kansas Supreme Court made clear in its November 18 decision that same-sex couples who obtained a valid marriage license from a clerk in the counties that were issuing them could have their marriages performed anywhere in the state — just to muddy the waters further.

Wednesday – November 19.  On this date it was Montana’s turn. . .  Montana was the last state within the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit that lacked a district court marriage equality ruling, until District Judge Brian Morris issued his Order in Rolando v. Fox, holding that the state’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, and issuing an injunction to “take effect immediately” requiring the state to allow same-sex couples to marry.  Realizing that filing a stay application would be futile, Attorney General Tim Fox immediately filed a notice of appeal with the 9th Circuit while same-sex marriages commenced in the state.  The 9th Circuit issued a briefing schedule under which an oral argument will not happen before April or later.

Thursday – November 20.  Lambda Legal, representing plaintiffs in the Louisiana marriage case, in which an appeal was already pending before the 5th Circuit with oral argument scheduled to take place in tandem with the state of Texas’s appeal from a decision rendered last spring, filed a cert petition with the Supreme Court, asking that Court to by-pass the 5th Circuit and take Lambda’s appeal from District Judge Feldman’s decision directly.  Lambda pointed out in its petition that there is already a circuit split, so no need to prolong things with arguments in more circuits.   It’s time for the Supreme Court to step in and make a nationally-binding decision.  (The other circuits in which appeals are pending are the 11th [Florida], the 8th [Missouri] and the 1st [Puerto Rico].)  Lambda also pointed out that granting cert in both the Louisiana case and one of the 6th Circuit cases would bring into play an unbroken string of states from the southern to the northern borders of the United States.  Later in the day, the Supreme Court posted its response to South Carolina Attorney General Wilson’s application for a stay.  The Court denied the application, noting that Justices Scalia and Thomas would have granted it.

Neither Scalia nor Thomas amplified their opposition with any written statement, but Thomas had gone on record as disagreeing with the Court’s decision to deny all the pending marriage equality certiorari petitions on October 6 when he filed a dissent from a denial of cert in an unrelated case, arguing that the Court needn’t wait for a circuit split in order to deal with questions of national importance from the lower courts, and citing the marriage petitions as examples of his point.

Also on November 20, the Arkansas Supreme Court heard arguments in the state’s appeal of Judge Chris Piazza’s ruling invalidating the Arkansas same-sex marriage ban from earlier in the year, and given the speed with which things are moving, a decision would be expected shortly.

Thus, as the busy week ended, the count of marriage equality states was continuing to trend upwards towards and beyond 35, even in the wake of the 6th Circuit’s anti-marriage-equality ruling, which seemed to have had little effect on the district courts that issued decisions this week.


First Marriage Equality Ruling in from South Carolina

Posted on: November 12th, 2014 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

There are two federal district court challenges pending in South Carolina.  The earlier-filed one, Bradacs v. Haley, sought recognition for a same-sex couple’s marriage contracted in the District of Columbia.  It was filed by two local attorneys in Columbia, South Carolina. In a November 10 order in that case, District Judge J. Michelle Childs granted a motion to dismiss Governor Nikki Haley as a defendant in the case, finding that she played no direct role in the enforcement of the state’s ban on the recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and also ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to attack head-on the state’s refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry.  She indicated that she would proceed to rule later on the plaintiff’s challenge to the state’s refusal to recognize their marriage, in which the state’s Attorney General, Alan Wilson, is the remaining defendant.

The later-filed case, Condon v. Haley, grew out of events last month.  After the Supreme Court refused to review the 4th Circuit’s ruling in Bostic v. Schaefer, holding that Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the 14th Amendment, the local Probate Judge in Charleston County, South Carolina, Irvin Condon, finding that this ruling is binding in South Carolina which is within the 4th Circuit, issued a marriage license to Colleen Therese Condon and Ann Nichols Bleckley.  There is a mandatory 24-hour waiting period in South Carolina between issuance of a license and performance of a marriage ceremony.  During that brief period, South Carolina’s Attorney General, Alan Wilson, ran to the state Supreme Court and sought an order blocking Probate Judge Condon from performing the ceremony.  The Supreme Court said that no same-sex marriages could be performed until the lawsuit pending before Judge Childs in federal court was finally resolved.

Thus thwarted in their marriage plans, Condon and Bleckley filed suit in the federal district court against Governor Haley, Attorney General Wilson, and Probate Judge Condon, seeking an order allowing them to marry.  The case was filed in their behalf by the Atlanta office of Lambda Legal working with cooperating attorneys from South Carolina: Malissa Burnette, Nekki Shutt, and Victoria Eslinger.  The matter was assigned to District Judge Richard Mark Gergel.  Shortly after filing the complaint, Lambda Legal moved the court for summary judgment and immediate injunctive relief.  Governor Haley filed a motion to dismiss as to her, and Attorney General Wilson moved to dismiss the case as failing to state a valid legal claim, arguing that the court was bound to dismiss the case because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Baker v. Nelson that same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question,” an argument that had been rejected by the 4th Circuit in the Virginia case.  Wilson also argued that the federal court should abstain deciding this case until Judge Childs ruled on the summary judgment motion in the Bradacs case, as the South Carolina Supreme Court had ordered that no same-sex marriages take place until the pending federal challenge was finally decided.

Rejecting all the defense’s jurisdictional and substantive arguments, Judge Gergel ruled on November 12 that the plaintiffs are entitled to the declaratory and injunctive relief that they are seeking.  He found that the pending cases in the South Carolina Supreme Court and before District Judge Childs posed no impediment to his ruling on the merits of this case.  He agreed with Judge Childs that Governor Haley should be dismissed as a defendant.  But he pointed out that the issues pending before Judge Childs and before him were different, as she had ruled just days before that the Bradacs plaintiffs had standing only to seek a ruling on recognition of their out-of-state marriage.

Gergel rejected Attorney General Wilson’s argument that he could ignore the 4th Circuit’s ruling in Bostic or reject it if he disagreed with it.  “This Court has carefully reviewed the language of South Carolina’s constitutional and statutory ban on same sex marriage and now finds that there is no meaningful distinction between the existing South Carolina provisions and those of Virginia declared unconstitutional in Bostic,” he wrote.

“While a party is certainly free to argue against precedent, even very recent precedent,” he continued, “the Fourth Circuit has exhaustively addressed the issues raised by Defendants and firmly and unambiguously recognized a fundamental right of same sex couples to marry and the power of the federal courts to address and vindicate that right.  Regardless of the passion of Bostic’s opponents, the predictability and stability of our judicial decisionmaking  is dependent upon lower courts respecting and enforcing the decisions of higher appellate courts.  Not every decision is heard and decided by the United States Supreme Court (in fact very few are), and lower federal courts are not free to disregard clear holdings of the circuit courts of appeals simply because a party believes them poorly reasoned or inappropriately attentive to alternative legal arguments.  Coherent and consistent adjudication requires respect for the principle of stare decisis and the basic rule that the decision of a federal circuit court of appeals left undisturbed by United States Supreme Court review is controlling on the lower courts within the circuit.  This principle, along with the foundational rule that the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land and state laws that run contrary to constitutionally protected rights of individuals cannot be allowed to stand, are among the body of doctrines that make up what we commonly refer to as the rule of law.”

Judge Gergel point out that since October 6, all of the other states in the 4th Circuit had fallen in line with the Bostic ruling (apart from Maryland, which had legislated and then voted in favor of same-sex marriage earlier), leaving South Carolina the last holdout.  This ruling, if upheld on appeal, will complete the “sweep” in the 4th Circuit.

Wilson had asked that Judge Gergel stay his ruling in case he decided to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.  Gergel rejected the idea that he should grant a stay pending the state’s appeal on the merits to the 4th Circuit, in light of that court’s prior ruling striking down Virginia’s marriage ban.  But, following the example set a week earlier by District Judge Crabtree in Kansas, he granted a temporary stay to give the state an opportunity to seek a stay pending appeal directly from the 4th Circuit or, failing that, from the Supreme Court.  Judge Gergel’s temporary stay will dissolve at noon on November 20 unless it is extended by the 4th Circuit or the Supreme Court.  The fate of Attorney General Wilson’s attempt to delay same-sex marriages in South Carolina likely turns on whether the Supreme Court grants a stay pending appeal in Kansas, since the issues are virtually identical, as Kansas has been denied a stay by the 10th Circuit, whose marriage equality decisions were denied review by the Supreme Court.

Judge Gergel was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama and took his seat in August 2010.  He had previously been a personal injury litigator in private practice after graduating from Duke Law School, and his appointment had been endorsed by South Carolina’s U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican.