December 24, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
What will the Tenth Circuit do with Utah marriages?
National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

It’s unclear what the Tenth Circuit will do over Utah same-sex marriages. (Image via wikimedia)

As celebrations continue in Utah following its surprise entry as a marriage equality state, one lingering question is whether the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals will allow gay couples to continue to marry there.

The court will face two questions regarding the ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. First, whether to institute a stay on Utah’s same-sex marriages as it considers the decision on appeal, and second, whether to overturn or uphold the district court decision.

Suzanne Goldberg, a lesbian and co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, said Sunday the Tenth Circuit’s previous rejections of a stay are no indication it’ll decide the same way the next time around.

“I know the 10th circuit declined to issue a stay today, but that decision is consistent with standard procedure, which provides that the district court should rule on a stay request before the appellate court responds,” Goldberg said. “The decision does not tell us what the court will do if and when the stay request is properly presented.”

Appeals courts have made various decisions on whether to institute a stay on same-sex marriages as marriage equality litigation has advanced. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on same-sex marriages after it determined California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. But the New Jersey State Supreme Court refused to stay a lower court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality, prompting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to drop his defense of the marriage ban.

State officials — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah attorney general’s office — have repeatedly sought stays on the weddings, but have been rebuffed by both the district court and the Tenth Circuit. However, the appeals court allowed officials to refile yet again. The Tenth Circuit could make a decision on a stay at any time and is expected to do so soon, perhaps on Christmas Eve.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, is calling on the Tenth Circuit to issue a stay on the same-sex marriages.

“This decision provokes a constitutional crisis,” Brown said. “Not only is it unlawful, it roils the body politic and does great damage to the people’s confidence in the judicial system itself as a lone federal judge attempts to usurp the sovereignty of the state. We call on the Tenth Circuit to grant an immediate stay so that our higher courts can carefully and thoughtfully consider the profoundly important issues raised by this case.”

In the event that the Tenth Circuit rejects a stay, state officials could take their request to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and politics at University of California, Irvine, said via Twitter that the request would go to U.S. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who could refer the issue to the entire court.

Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said determining which way the Supreme Court will rule on a stay is difficult — even with the precedent of declaring Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

“Given that couples are now marrying in many other states without any harm to anyone, the Court might choose simply not to get involved at this point, but, as I’ve said, I can’t make any prediction at this point with any degree of confidence,” Davidson said.

Regardless of whether or not the court issues a stay, state officials — Gov. Gary Herbert and newly appointed Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes — have the right to automatic appeal, so the Tenth Circuit has no option but to take up the case on its merits.

The makeup of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is split just about down the middle between judges appointed by Democrats and Republicans. Three were appointed by President Obama, one by President Clinton, one by President George H.W. Bush, and four by President George W. Bush, making for a 4/5 split of Democratic vs. Republican appointees. There are also two vacancies on the court.

Davidson nonetheless said the political affiliation of the president who appointed a judge doesn’t necessarily predict the way they will decide a case.

“Of course, who appointed a judge does not necessarily tell you how a judge would rule, as some appointees of Democratic presidents have been quite moderate or even, in some states, somewhat conservative, and a number of Republican judges throughout the country have ruled in favor of marriage equality,” Davidson said.

It’s also hard to predict which combination of judges will decide the Utah case. Just as two judges on the court have denied previous stay requests in the case, certain motions, including motions to stay, are randomly assigned to a rotating two-judge panel. In the event of a tie, those judges may request that a third judge be added to decide the matter.

The consistency of the Tenth Circuit stands in contrast to the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals, which has a 27-15 split of Democratic vs. Republican appointees and has a reputation for being a liberal court. The court affirmed California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional on the basis that marriage rights for gay couples can’t be rescinded once initially offered, and upheld California’s law prohibiting widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy for minors.

As far as previous rulings, as state officials have noted in their requests for a stay on Utah same-sex marriages, no judge in the Tenth Circuit — at the district or the appeals level — has ever issued an opinion on marriage equality besides Shelby. As the judge noted in his ruling, the Tenth Circuit had determined in 2008 that sexual orientation discrimination doesn’t merit heightened scrutiny, but Shelby said that doesn’t matter because Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage doesn’t pass rational basis review.

But there is precedent for pro-gay rulings in the Tenth Circuit. In 2007, the appeals court in the case of Finstuen v. Crutcher struck down under the Full Faith & Credit Clause an Oklahoma statute barring recognition of adoptions by same-sex couples finalized in another state.

The timing for when the Tenth Circuit will make a decision regarding the appeal also remains in question. As Columbia University’s Goldberg noted, the process can take about a year, but there’s no standard timeline.

“Usually it can take up to a year, or even more, for an appeal to be briefed, argued and decided,” Goldberg said. “In marriage cases, there is a compelling reason for courts to act more quickly because people are being actively denied their rights, but there are no strict rules on the timetable.”

Davidson said it will take at least three months before a briefing is completed in the Kitchen case, but it could be considerably longer if parties seek an extension. More time is needed for oral arguments and for judges to write their decisions.

“Sometimes the period between notice of appeal and decision can be as short as six months or so, and sometimes it can be a matter of years,” Davidson said.

Shelby’s ruling had the distinction of being the first ruling on a marriage ban as a result of a federal lawsuit following the Supreme Court decision against DOMA. While other courts in New Jersey and New Mexico instituted marriage equality following the high court decision, these lawsuits were in state court, not federal court.

However, it’s not the most advanced marriage equality lawsuit. The case against Nevada’s ban on same-sex marriage, Sevcik v. Sandoval, is pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It remains to be seen which of these two cases, or yet another, will be the first marriage equality lawsuit to reach the Supreme Court in the aftermath of the decisions this year.

However the Tenth Circuit decides, the decision from Shelby is expected to have an impact on other courts evaluating the issue of marriage equality.

Davidson said Lambda Legal submitted a copy of the ruling to the U.S. District Court for the Western District Court just before it allowed a lawsuit challenging a state ban on same-sex marriage in Virginia to proceed.

“Judge Shelby’s opinion is very persuasive, in my view, and I think it will be given significant consideration by other judges deciding these issues,” Davidson said.

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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