Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Thursday said he intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to delay implementation of a lower court's recent decision to overturn the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
In a ruling handed down Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby said Utah's constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law.
“The state's current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason,” Judge Shelby wrote in his ruling.
On Monday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the state's request for an emergency stay of Judge Shelby's decision pending the outcome of the its appeal.
“The Attorney General's Office is preparing an application to the United States Supreme Court requesting a stay of the District Court's order,” Mr. Reyes said in a statement issued on Thursday. “Due to the necessity of coordination with outside counsel, the filing of the appeal may be delayed for a few days. It is the intent of the Attorney General's Office to file with the Supreme Court as soon as possible.”
The state's request for an emergency stay would be fielded by Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who presides over the 10th Circuit. Justice Sotomayor could either rule on the state's request herself or bring the issue to a hearing before all nine justices.
In the meantime, Judge Shelby's ruling effectively makes Utah the 18th state in the U.S. to permit gay and lesbian couples to marry, and the eighth to do so in 2013. State legislatures in Rhode Island, Minnesota, Delaware, Illinois and Hawaii all voted to allow same-sex marriages this year. Additionally, state courts in New Jersey and New Mexico struck down existing laws prohibiting legal marriage between same-sex couples.
Pending the outcome of the state's appeal — and its request for an emergency stay — of Judge Shelby's ruling, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday advised state agencies and county clerks to “conduct business in compliance with the federal judge's ruling” so long as doing so does not conflict with any other applicable state statutes or administrative rules.
Where conflicts exist, Gov. Herbert said agencies should work with their assigned assistant attorneys general to resolve them.
'No legitimate reason'
Judge Shelby's decision marks the first ruling in a federal court on the constitutionality of state laws banning same-sex marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in United States v. Windsor, in which it overturned a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that restricted the federal definition of marriage to unions of one man and one woman.
Citing the majority and dissenting opinions in Supreme Court's Windsor ruling — as well as previous Supreme Court rulings addressing the restriction of marriage rights — Judge Shelby said that while Utah reserves the unquestioned authority to regulate and define marriage within its borders, it must do so in a way that does not violate its citizens' rights under the federal Constitution.
“The right to marry is intertwined with the rights to privacy and intimate association, and an individual's choices related to marriage are protected because they are integral to a person's dignity and autonomy,” Judge Shelby said. “While states have the authority to regulate marriage, the Supreme Court has struck down several state regulations that impermissibly burdened an individual's ability to exercise the right to marry.”
At trial, attorneys for the state argued that the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — passed by 66% of Utah voters in 2004 — did not infringe on gay and lesbian individuals' rights to marry because they were still free to marry partners of the opposite sex.
“The State's prohibition of the plaintiffs' right to choose a same-sex marriage partner renders their fundamental right to marry as meaningless as if the State recognized the plaintiffs' right to bear arms but not their right to buy bullets,” Judge Shelby said.
“There is no legitimate reason that the rights of gay and lesbian individuals are any different from those of other people,” he added later in his opinion. “All citizens, regardless of their sexual identity, have a fundamental right to liberty, and this right protects an individual's ability to marry and the intimate choices a person makes about marriage and family.”