A federal judge appears ready to rule on the constitutionality of Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban in the wake of Attorney General Mark Herring’s announcement that he will not defend it.
Judge Arenda L. Wright of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk on Jan. 23 asked the parties in the lawsuit filed by two same-sex couples to file status reports on whether oral arguments that are scheduled to take place on Thursday “remains warranted.” She also told the litigants to tell the court whether it should “instead rule promptly on the briefs without a hearing.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs — Timothy Bostic and Tony London of Norfolk and Carol Schall and Mary Townley of Richmond — filed their response to Wright’s order on Jan. 24. The judge ordered attorneys representing the defendant — Norfolk Circuit Court Clerk George Schaefer — to respond to Herring’s position that the state constitutional amendment that defines marriage in Virginia as between a man and a woman is unconstitutional by noon on Monday.
“The attorney general’s change in position should not delay this court’s resolution of plaintiff’s motions for a preliminary injunction and summary judgment,” wrote Bostic and London’s lawyers in the status report they submitted to Wright. “If anything, the attorney general’s change in position makes clearer the appropriateness of immediate relief.”
Herring’s decision not to defend the marriage amendment sparked immediate outrage among some Virginia Republicans and social conservatives.
“The attorney general’s decision to refuse to enforce a duly-adopted provision of the Virginia Constitution is frightening,” said state Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County) on Sunday during the Republican Party of Virginia’s weekly address.
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, echoed Gilbert in a statement her organization released after Herring’s Jan. 23 announcement.
State Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County) equated the attorney general’s announcement during a Jan. 24 interview with Roll Call Editor-in-Chief Christina Bellantoni that aired on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU to a “Pearl Harbor attack on the people of Virginia.” Republican Party of Virginia Chair Pat Mullins is among those who have suggested that Herring should resign.
A Virginia House of Delegates committee on Jan. 24 approved a bill that Gilbert and Marshall introduced earlier this month that would allow any state lawmaker to defend a law if the governor and attorney general decline to do so. The two Republicans are among the 32 lawmakers who urged Gov. Terry McAuliffe on the same day to defend the state’s marriage amendment that voters in 2006 approved by a 57-43 percent margin.
“Attorney General Herring apparently is satisfied that the people of Virginia shall not be represented in court to defend the 2006 voter approved one-man, one-woman marriage amendment,” wrote the legislators in the letter of which the Washington Post obtained a copy.
McAuliffe, who took office slightly more than two weeks ago, supports marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“There are people who are going to attack me and try to say ‘well it’s about the duty of the attorney general [to defend the marriage ban,]” Herring told the Washington Blade during a Jan. 23 interview. “In fact what they’re really upset about is that they disagree with marriage equality. And that’s their right, but it’s not the law.”
Neighboring Maryland is among the 17 states and D.C. that have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. Gays and lesbians in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and other states have filed lawsuits seeking the ability to tie the knot in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision last June that found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
The ACLU, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Virginia last August filed a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of two lesbian couples from the Shenandoah Valley — including one who tied the knot in D.C. in 2011 — who are seeking marriage rights in the commonwealth. The first hearing in the case is expected to take place in the coming months.