September 5, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
N.M. marriage heats up as clerks seek guidance from high court
Santa Fe, New Mexico, gay news, Washington Blade

Santa Fe County is among those in New Mexico giving marriage licenses to gay couples (Photo by Karol M. via Wikimedia Commons).

The debate over same-sex nuptials continues to heat up in New Mexico as a total of eight counties have positioned themselves to give marriage license to gay couples and officials on both sides have filed lawsuits seeking a resolution to the issue.

On Thursday, all 33 New Mexico county clerks filed a petition with the State Supreme Court asking justices for clarification on whether granting marriage licenses to gay couples is warranted under the state constitution.

“Intervenor Clerks as a group cannot issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples with confidence of the legality of their actions without an opinion from this Court as to the responsibility and obligation of the County Clerk and legal validity of the marriage licenses being issued, including direction or authority to change the statutory forms,” the petition states.

The Supreme Court had previously decided in response to a petition filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union that it wouldn’t immediately hear the issue of same-sex marriage, but wanted to lower courts to decide the issue on a expedited basis for a final judgment.

Pat Davis, who’s gay and executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, told the Washington Blade the organization welcomes the move from county clerks.

“We’ve said all along that that’s the end goal of all, or the gold-standard answer that settles this once and for all,” Davis said. “So, we applaud it. We know the clerks have been looking for this as early as 2004 when the Sandoval County Clerk originally issued marriage licenses on their own, way back when. So from our perspective, it’s long overdue.”

Clerks say resolution from the New Mexico Supreme Court is needed in the wake of a decision from District Judge Alan Mallot that the state constitution requires clerks in in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties to give marriage licenses to gay couples.

They note Mallot’s reading of the state constitution differs from two attorneys general who say same-sex marriage is unavailable under current law. They also question Mallot’s reading of how state constitution prohibits discrimination against gay couples when it explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sex, but not sexual orientation.

Davis said ideally he’d like to see the court accept the petition “very soon” to give clerks assurances on how to act.

“We’ve seen our Supreme Court act in as little as a week, and while that’s not likely in this case, it would not be surprising to a lot of us if this were settled before the end of September,” Davis said.

Meanwhile, the number of clerks in New Mexico that have decided to give out marriage licenses to gay couples — either under their own volition or under court order — continues to grow.

District Judge Sheri Raphaelson this week ordered Los Alamos County to give marriage licenses to gay couples, making it the eighth county in New Mexico where same-sex marriage is available. According to an analysis from AMERICAblog’s John Aravosis, the decision means 58.5 percent of New Mexico’s population has marriage equality.

Davis said the number of counties issuing marriage licenses to gay couples demonstrates that marriage equality is coming to the entire state at high speed.

“So, at this point, more than half of the residents of the State of New Mexico has access to the freedom to marry,” Davis said. “The ones that remain are in places where some of the clerks have indicated they would if their district court said they could. Ultimately, they all say they will if the Supreme Court does it.”

Still, Republicans have finally gone through with their announced plans to file lawsuits in New Mexico to stop same-sex marriages from happening. They’ve filed lawsuits in Dona Ana, San Miguel and Valencia counties — the three counties that are issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on their own accord as opposed to a court order.

In the petition filed in Dona Ana County, Republicans, including anti-gay State Sen. Willam Sharer, argue that the clerk should stop issuing marriage licenses because the county is operating outside state law.

“The Legislature is explicit in its prescription of the method of issuing marriage licenses; applicants must fill our an application that is substantially identical as the uniform marriage license application form, which requires both a male and female applicant,” the petition states. “Respondent has not been granted authority to issue marriage licenses in any manner that doesn’t correspond to those instructions.”

Davis said Republicans’ decision to file the petitions only in counties giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples without court order may, in fact, affirm the actions of these county clerks.

“We think it’s going to be pretty ironic, actually, that the Republican challenge may actually work to expand the legal protection for marriage equality across the state,” Davis said. “We haven’t found a single person yet who’s following this case and has any sense in constitutional law in New Mexico that thinks they’re going to prevail.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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