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Florida cleared to become 36th state with marriage equality

A federal judge kicked off the new year Thursday with clear instructions that all gay and lesbian couples would soon be able to marry in the Sunshine State.

Ending weeks of confusion over the effects of a ruling that struck down Florida's same-sex marriage ban, a federal judge kicked off the new year Thursday with clear instructions that all gay and lesbian couples would soon be able to marry in the Sunshine State.

RELATED: Court strikes down Florida ban on same-sex marriage

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, a President Bill Clinton appointee, issued a four-page order on New Years Day stating that all of Florida's 67 clerks had every right to abide by an August decision overturning the state's same-sex marriage ban. Furthermore, wrote Hinkle, any Florida clerk who decides not to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning next week could face expensive legal action.

"Reasonable people can debate whether the ruling in this case was correct and who it binds," said Hinkle. "There should be no debate, however, on the question whether a clerk of court may follow the ruling, even for marriage-license applicants who are not parties to this case. And a clerk who chooses not to follow the ruling should take note: the governing statutes and rules of procedure allow individuals to intervene as plaintiffs in pending action, allow certification of plaintiff and defendant classes, allow issuance of successive preliminary injunctions, and allow successful plaintiffs to recover costs and attorney's fees."

Marriage equality advocates hailed Hinkle's clarification as a success, and the state's Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi said Thursday evening her office would not stand in the way of gay and lesbian couples' marrying next week.

“This office has sought to minimize confusion and uncertainty, and we are glad the Court has provided additional guidance," Bondi said in a statement. "My office will not stand in the way as clerks of court determine how to proceed.”

RELATED: Gay marriage confusion clouds the Sunshine State

Judge Hinkle struck down Florida's same-sex marriage ban in August, staying the effects of his ruling pending appeal until the end of day on Jan. 5. State officials asked both the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Florida, and the U.S. Supreme Court to extend that stay, but both refused. Florida was set to join 35 states plus the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex couples to legally wed.

But not everyone agreed. In December, Greenberg Traurig, a private law firm that represents the state association of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, released a memo stating that Hinkle's ruling applied only to one clerk -- the defendant -- and one same-sex couple -- the plaintiffs. Anyone else who issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, argued Greenberg Traurig, would be in violation of the state statute prohibiting marriage equality – an offense that in Florida carries as much as $1,000 in fines and up to one year in jail.

Based off that analysis, a majority of Florida’s clerks who participated in an Associated Press inquiry said they would not be granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Jan. 6. Greenberg Traurig took back its warning following Hinkle's clarification.

“We are pleased that Judge Hinkle has clarified his original order and the responsibilities of the clerks around the state,” said Hilarie Bass, Greenberg Traurig’s co-president, according to the Miami Herald. “The order states that the Constitution requires all clerks to issue marriage licenses to all applicants, regardless of gender.”