Tag Archives: Utah

What Now for Same-Sex Marriage in Utah?

The Supreme Court pushed the “pause” button on gay marriage in Utah yesterday, preventing any new marriages between same-sex couples from taking place until the case has been decided on appeal by the Tenth Circuit. Let’s take a second to unpack the justices’ order:

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OK, so there’s not a whole lot to unpack here. The grant indicates that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Circuit Justice in charge of handling stay applications arising from the Tenth Circuit, referred Utah’s request to the full court instead of deciding it herself. This was an expected outcome–as mentioned in my previous post explaining the stay application process, full-court consideration is the most efficient way to dispose of the request and prevent any “appeals” or resubmissions that could happen when an individual Circuit Justice rules on a stay. That the Supreme Court granted the stay was also not surprising. As Rick Hasen notes here, it was very likely that the Court (including even the justices who would support expanding same-sex marriage rights1 ) would want to slow things down on such an important, far-reaching constitutional question.

So what does the grant yesterday tell us about how the Court may rule on the merits in Herbert v. Kitchen, when it is inevitably appealed from the Tenth Circuit? The answer is: very little. We do know that the Court will likely choose to hear the case–based on the requirements for successfully obtaining a stay (also detailed in the flowchart from my previous post), the Court would not have granted Utah its stay unless it thought there was a “reasonable probability” that four justices would grant certiorari when the case eventually winds its way up. We also know from the grant requirements that the full court thought there was a “fair prospect” that five justices might eventually overturn federal district Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling on the Utah same-sex marriage ban, probably because of his game-changing conclusion that same-sex marriage is a fundamental constitutional right–an issue that the Supreme Court itself assiduously avoided addressing in last year’s DOMA and Proposition 8 litigation.

Beyond these questions of probability, however, the grant itself contained no reasoning for the Justices’ decision and addressed none of the substantive arguments brought up by Utah and the same-sex couple plaintiffs, so it is hard to divine how they will rule on the merits. The criteria for granting a stay are different from the standards used for ruling on the substantive questions. The fact that it chose to hit the brakes on same-sex marriage in Utah now does not necessarily mean that the Court will strike down Judge Shelby’s ruling.

A more pressing question created by yesterday’s grant is what happens now to the 1,360 same-sex couples who received marriage licenses from the state–a majority of whom have already used the licenses to get legally married in the seventeen days before the Supreme Court halted the process. Interim Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a press conference yesterday afternoon that he “doesn’t know.” These couples are in “legal limbo,” “uncharted territory.”

My personal feeling is that yesterday’s stay should not erase or invalidate the hundreds of same-sex marriages that were legally carried out in Utah in the period between Judge Shelby’s initial December 20 ruling and the Supreme Court order. Up until yesterday, while Utah’s stay request was slowly moving its way up the federal courts, Judge Shelby’s decision striking down Amendment 3 was still controlling in the state, so these marriages did not take place in violation of any court order or state ban. A trickier question is what happens to the couples who obtained marriage licenses legally during those seventeen days but had not actually gotten married by the time that the Supreme Court issued the stay. We should fully expect further “offshoot” litigation on this matter.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Utah is still weighing proposals to bring in outside counsel to help with Kitchen, which will be scheduled for argument before the Tenth Circuit this spring. Outside help would probably be a wise idea, given the state’s well-documented bungling in the last few weeks. That Utah dropped the ball repeatedly on moving its stay application along–first by neglecting to ask Judge Shelby at the litigation stage for a stay of any possible ruling in favor of the same-sex couples, then by running to the Tenth Circuit for an emergency stay before Judge Shelby had even ruled on its request, then by waiting a full week to appeal the Tenth Circuit stay denial to Justice Sotomayor–is the reason why the state is now dealing with such a large number of marriages that may or may not be legal.

  1. For an example of a Supreme Court justice advocating for an incremental approach to the recognition of a constitutional right, look no further than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments on Roe v. Wade. She has repeatedly said that abortion rights should have been settled state-by-state rather than in one fell swoop, which in her opinion had the effect of polarizing the national discussion. A similar argument regarding strategy has played out amongst same-sex marriage proponents. []

[UPDATED] With Utah Stay Application Filed, Ball is Now in the Supremes’ Court [Infographic]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court is set to decide whether same-sex marriages in Utah, which have been conducted since a federal trial judge overturned on December 20 a state ban on such marriages, can continue while the case is being appealed, or whether they must cease for the time being.

After both Judge Robert Shelby and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied its application for an emergency stay, Utah took its request up to the Circuit Justice assigned to the Tenth Circuit, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, on December 31. Justice Sotomayor asked the plaintiffs to submit its response opposing the stay by noon, January 3. Their brief can be found here (courtesy of the Legal Times).

From here, Justice Sotomayor can choose to decide the stay herself, or she can refer the issue to the full Supreme Court. I’ve created a flowchart (click to enlarge) to help explain how a non-capital stay1 moves through the federal courts. The magenta box on the left lists out what a party must show in order to obtain a stay.

(This flowchart was created using information from Supreme Court Rule 22 on “Applications to Individual Justices” and the Supreme Court Public Information Office’s “Reporter’s Guide to Applications.” The latter includes a chart showing which Justices are assigned to which Circuits.) 

In terms of where in the process we are right now, Utah’s stay application is at the teal box labeled “Circuit Justice (Justice Sotomayor).”

There has been a lot of speculation in the last few days over whether Justice Sotomayor will keep the stay application for herself or bring in the rest of her colleagues, with many predicting that she will refer it to the full Court. As the chart shows, that seems to be the quickest, most efficient way to dispose of the application–once the full Court has voted on the stay, its decision is final.

Individual Circuit Justice rulings, meanwhile, are theoretically subject to “appeal.” If the Circuit Justice denies the stay, the party petitioning for a stay can resubmit the request to another individual Justice of its choosing (Supreme Court Rule 22.4, however, points out that this tactic is “not favored,” and the Justice to whom the request is resubmitted will usually then refer it to the full court, out of deference to the Circuit Justice and to defuse attempts at “justice shopping”). If the Circuit Justice individually grants the application, the party opposing the stay can then ask the full court to vacate the stay. Now, in practice, the Circuit Justices are accorded a great deal of deference in their individual decisions–Sotomayor, after all, did just individually grant a stay on a separate case two days ago–but the possibility that their rulings might end up being reviewed by the full Court anyway may incentivize them to “share.”

UPDATE: The Supreme Court granted Utah’s request for a stay this morning, halting same-sex marriages in the state until the Tenth Circuit has decided the case on appeal. The one-paragraph order, which can be found here, shows that Justice Sotomayor did in fact refer the stay request to the full court. The Supreme Court did not touch the merits of the case in its grant of the stay, providing no explanation of its decision or analysis of the two parties’ arguments. As Utah’s Fox 13 News reporter Ben Winslow notes, over 900 same-sex marriages have been conducted in the state since Judge Shelby’s initial ruling on December 20. Winslow reports that the Tenth Circuit expects to hear oral argument in the case this March.

  1. As opposed to capital stays, where a convicted individual has received the death penalty–these play out differently because of the nature of such cases []