Message delivered — again.
For the second time in seven months, the Supreme Court of the United States has been forced to weigh in, procedurally, on the legal contest surrounding the definition of marriage. In both cases, Utah has been seeking to uphold its democratic process. And for the second time, the high court stayed lower federal court decisions jeopardizing Utah’s ability to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
Dec. 20, 2013: U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled the state’s Amendment 3 unconstitutional. At that time, Utah’s law was one of 29 states with constitutional amendments, and four states with laws, defining man-woman marriage as the law. Shelby did not stay his decision, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay it, too. Some 1,300 marriages of same-sex couples were performed before the high court took action two-and-a-half weeks later.
Jan. 6: The Supreme Court issued a stay of Shelby’s ruling, reinstating the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and allowing it to continue until a ruling from a federal appeals court.
May 19: U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled Utah must recognize marriage benefits for those same-sex couples who married between Dec. 20 and Jan. 6. He temporarily stayed his decision for 21 days, with the state appealing to the 10th Circuit Court to extend Kimball’s stay pending an outcome in the case.
June 5: The 10th Circuit Court extended the temporary stay against Kimball’s ruling regarding the status of the same-sex couples married within the 17-day period.
June 25: The 10th Circuit Court, on a 2-1 vote, upheld Shelby’s ruling. But it stayed its decision on this case until the matter is resolved by a petition to the Supreme Court. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes have since said that they will seek this review.
July 11: The 10th Circuit Court - again in 2-1 a split decision – issued a decision lifted the stay in the case decided by Kimball. Although it ordered Utah to recognize the previously performed same-sex marriages, it did grant a narrow 10-day window for the state to seek a stay from the Supreme Court.
Which all led up to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor – the justice with responsibility for overseeing the 10th Circuit Court -- referring the matter to her fellow justices. On Friday, the Supreme Court issued a two-sentence order, once again overturning the judgment of the 10th Circuit Court and issuing a stay against Kimball’s judgment going into effect.
We expect that the Supreme Court will ultimately address the fundamental question in this case: Does the U.S. Constitution impose a requirement upon states to institute same-gender marriage?
Justices are understandably reluctant to become the arbiters of this major cultural battleground. But their constitutional role relative to the nation’s inferior courts requires them to damper the rush by federal district court judges to implicitly overturn Supreme Court precedents.
This latest Supreme Court action is encouraging. Utah’s marriage laws remain intact for now. We believe that other federal judges – district and circuit court – must show more caution on this issue until the high court reviews the fundamental question. We also believe that Utah will have the opportunity to defend its marriage laws before the Supreme Court.