October 26, 2013 at 9:17 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Court asked to overturn marriage bans in Nevada, Hawaii
Martha Coakley, Beau Biden, Neil Abercrombie, Massachusetts, Delaware, Hawaii, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden and Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie signed briefs before the Ninth Circuit seeking marriage equality. (Photo of Martha Coakley by Fogster via Wikimedia Commons; Washington Blade photos of Biden and Abercrombie by Michael Key)

Five months after the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions in favor of marriage equality, a chorus of voices is calling on the U.S. Ninth Circuit to make a similar ruling on behalf of gay couples seeking marriage rights in Nevada and Hawaii.

Legal briefs were submitted to the Ninth Circuit by numerous public figures who’ve previously articulated their support for marriage equality, ranging from Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie to Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden. However, the Obama administration didn’t submit a brief to the court by the deadline articulating its views of favor of same-sex marriage.

The cases before the court are Sevick v. Sandoval, a federal lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal last year seeking marriage equality in Nevada, and Jackson v. Abercrombie, a similar lawsuit filed by private attorneys seeking to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage in Hawaii. Both are on appeal before the Ninth Circuit after district courts in those states affirmed that the bans on same-sex marriage were constitutional.

Abercrombie, who previously said he wouldn’t defend the ban on same-sex marriage in court, submitted an opening brief from his lawyers on Oct. 18 that seeks permission to file an additional, more lengthy document because the lawsuit a “landmark civil rights case.”

But the 112-page brief makes initial arguments about why the ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, arguing that it fails any rational basis test and laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny.

“Only legalization of same-sex marriage would allow plaintiffs, and tens of thousands of other same-sex couples in Hawaii, to ‘pursue the happiness’ and assume the mutual responsibilities — important to human ‘existence and survival’ — that are at the heart of the fundamental right to marry,” the brief states. “And only legalization will give plaintiffs the equality they so justly deserve.”

On Friday, friend-of-the-court briefs were also due before the Ninth Circuit. One high-profile brief was signed by 14 attorneys general who had previously signed a brief before the Supreme Court arguing in favor of marriage equality. Signers of the brief include Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who’s running for governor, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Biden.

The 32-page argues that the bans on same-sex marriage in Hawaii and Nevada are unconstitutional, among other reasons, because including same-sex couples into the institution of marriage enhances state interest and the current laws aren’t rationally related to interests in procreation or child-rearing.

“Since the founding, states have sanctioned marriages to support families, strengthen communities, and facilitate governance,” the brief states. “Because same-sex couples form families, raise children, and avail themselves of the benefits and abide by the obligations of marriage in the same manner as different-sex couples, the states’ interest in marriage are furthered by allowing same-sex couples to marry.”

The 14 states represented in the brief are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. D.C. Attorney General Irving Nathan also signed.

Because the cases are before the Ninth Circuit, they are the most advanced federal lawsuits on marriage equality and the closest to the Supreme Court. However, the lawsuits may not be the ones to reach the high court first because the Ninth Circuit is notoriously slow in reviewing litigation.

Both briefs from the attorneys general and Abercrombie make use the Supreme Court’s decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.

The brief filed by the attorneys generals says in a footnote that the DOMA decision has particular impact on gay couples in Hawaii and Nevada because marriage laws in those states are now preventing them from accessing the federal benefits of marriage.

“Nevada and Hawaii marriage laws now prevent same-sex couples and their families from obtaining important federal benefits and protections otherwise available to married couples,” the brief states. “This works significant and practical harm to those families and further undercuts the rationality of state laws that create two classes of state-sanctioned relationships.”

The attorneys general filed a brief before the Ninth Circuit even though they had previously articulated their views on marriage before the Supreme Court, but one party that didn’t follow suit is the Obama administration.

The Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief when California’s Proposition 8 had come before the Supreme Court, arguing the ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and suggesting states with domestic partnerships must allow marriage rights for gay couples.

Although Nevada and Hawaii similarly have domestic partnership registries, the Obama administration didn’t make a filing in the Nevada or Hawaii cases. The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request to comment on why no brief was filed.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, nonetheless said the lack of a brief from the Obama administration isn’t of concern.

“It is not disappointing and not a problem; the Department of Justice’s conclusion that the denial if the freedom to marry violates the Constitution is clear and a matter of record,” Wolfson said.

Lambda Legal had previously said it would “welcome” a brief from the Obama administration in the Nevada case for the Ninth Circuit. In response to an inquiry about the absence of input from the Justice Department, Lambda Staff Attorney Peter Renn pointed to the friend-of-the-court briefs filed by other parties in the lawsuit.

“A total of 17 amicus briefs were filed, in support of ending the unconstitutional exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and the real harm it does to same-sex couples and their families,” Renn said. “The Obama Administration’s support for marriage equality is already well-established, and there may be future opportunities to file amicus briefs in this case as it proceeds further.”

A number of other parties submitted friend-of-the-court briefs before the Ninth Circuit in favor of overturning the bans on same-sex marriage.

* A group of 13 political scientists filed a 39-page brief arguing the marriage bans should be overturned because laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny. Gay people, the political scientists say, should be considered a suspect class because they continue to lack political power.

“Gay men and lesbians lack political power,” the brief states. “They are underrepresented in political office; they are viewed negatively by a majority of Americans; their interests are opposed by powerful, well-funded interest groups that use ballot initiatives to try to undo the limited political successes that gay men and lesbians have achieved; and they have limited influence over their political allies.”

* Another brief was filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which argues that the 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning state bans on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia applies to prohibitions on same-sex marriage.

“The basic 14th Amendment principles addressed in Loving are not limited to race,” the brief states. “To the contrary, they govern any state action that denies two consenting adults – including those of the same sex – the right to marry. While the nature of discrimination against lesbians and gay men differs fundamentally from the de jure racial segregation at issue in Loving, the legal issues addressed by Loving are analogous to the legal issues raised in these appeals.”

Other briefs were filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the American Psychological Association, the Columbia Law School Sexuality & Gender Law Clinic and the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association.

UPDATE: This article has been updated with a comment from Lambda Legal and a listing on the states that signed the brief from the attorneys general.

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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