The day countless LGBT advocates have been waiting for is finally in sight: The Supreme Court will take up a marriage equality case this term, and likely decide once and for all whether gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to wed.
The nation’s highest court on Friday granted all four pending requests, known as petitions for writ of certiorari, to hear challenges to same-sex marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The action is ten years in the making, following the 2004 legalization of marriage equality in Massachusetts, the first state to allow such unions.
Arguments will take place in April, with a decision likely to come at the end of June. The court is also poised to rule this term on the future of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The Supreme Court declined to review a marriage equality case last October, allowing gay and lesbian couples to begin marrying in states bound to the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuits, which had already ruled in favor of same-sex nuptials. At the time, no federal appeals court had ever found a state’s same-sex marriage ban to be constitutional. That winning streak came to an end one month later, when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld marriage bans in cases out of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. That decision created what’s known as a “circuit split,” and increased the pressure on the Supreme Court to settle the matter once and for all.
While same sex marriage has come before the court before, in 2013, the high court declined to answer the question of whether gay and lesbian couples had a constitutional right to wed. One case – a challenge to California’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8 – was tossed out on procedural grounds. The other – a challenge to a federal law, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that prevented the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex nuptials – resulted in a landmark decision that affirmed both voters’ rights to dictate their own marriage laws, and the equal dignity of gay and lesbian couples. The DOMA ruling unleashed an unprecedented wave of litigation and legal victories for the marriage equality movement.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who declined to defend the constitutionality of DOMA in 2013, reaffirmed his commitment to the LGBT community on Friday, and said the Justice Department would be filing a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of same-sex couples hoping to wed. “It is time for our nation to take another critical step forward to ensure the fundamental equality of all Americans — no matter who they are, where they come from, or whom they love,” said Holder in a statement.
Meanwhile, GOP leaders, including the party’s presidential front-runners, were conspicuously silent on the matter, despite the fact that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples has been major component of the Republican agenda for years.
Thirty-six states, plus the District of Columbia and some counties in Missouri, currently allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The high court’s ruling in June could topple the remaining same-sex marriage bans.
Here’s a look at the four cases the court will consider:
Kentucky’s suit, Bourke v. Beshear, was filed by the ACLU and other attorneys on behalf on four same-sex couples seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriages. They won at the trial court level in February, when U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II, a President George H.W. Bush appointee declared that “Kentucky’s laws treat gay and lesbian persons differently in a way that demeans them.” His ruling left in place the portion of Kentucky’s ban that allowed clerks to deny gay and lesbian couples marriage licenses. But five months later, after two additional couples filed a motion to intervene, Heyburn struck down the ban in its entirety. Both rulings were stayed pending appeal, and then reversed by the 6th Circuit in November.
The Ohio suit, Obergefell, et al. v. Hodges, was brought by the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and Al Gerhardstein on behalf of two widowers who wanted their marriages recognized on the death certificates of their late spouses. They won in April, and when John Arthur – one of the plaintiffs – passed away six months later, his death certificate listed his husband, Jim Obergefell, as his surviving spouse. That ruling was also reversed by the 6th Circuit.
Michigan’s suit, DeBoer v. Snyder, was filed by attorneys on behalf of a same-sex couple hoping to marry and be able to adopt each other’s children, whom they are raising together as a family. Under the Michigan adoption code, only a single person, a married couple, or one-half of a married couple can adopt a child. And because Michigan bans same-sex couples from marrying, they are effectively barred from adopting together as well. In the plaintiffs’ case, that leaves Jayne Rowse as legal parent of the couple’s two sons, and April DeBoer as legal parent of their two daughters. Neither woman has full parental rights to all four of their children.
DeBoer and Rowse won in March, when U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, a President Reagan appointee, struck down Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban and did not stay the effects of his ruling. Nearly 300 same-sex couples then married in the state before the 6th Circuit indefinitely halted Friedman’s decision a week later pending appeal. When the 6th Circuit eventually upheld the state’s ban, Michigan’s Republican attorney general voided the hundreds of same-sex marriages that took place during the brief window in which they were allowed. But on Thursday, a different federal judge declared that the state of Michigan must recognize those marriages.
The Tennessee suit, Tanco v. Haslam, was filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and other attorneys on behalf of four same-sex couples seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriages. They won in March, when U.S. District Judge Aleta Arthur Trauger, a President Bill Clinton appointee, ruled that “in the eyes of the United States Constitution, the plaintiffs’ marriages will be placed on an equal footing with those of heterosexual couples and that proscriptions against same-sex marriage will soon become a footnote in the annals of American history.”