Same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada violate the U.S. Constitution and cannot be enforced, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, one day after the nation’s highest court cleared the way for marriage equality’s expansion to 30 states plus the District of Columbia. It is the fourth federal appeals court to strike down state laws prohibiting same-sex nuptials.
The move hardly comes as a surprise. Not only did a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit destroy arguments in defense of same-sex marriage bans at a hearing last month, but it’s also the same court that struck down California’s ban, Proposition 8, in 2012. That ruling was ultimately vacated in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, returning marriage equality to the nation’s most populous state through a lower court’s order. But its significance lives on, especially now that marriage equality is poised to take over more than half the nation.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals Monday to hear same-sex marriage cases out of Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin – all of which saw their bans fall in both federal district and appeals courts. The move immediately legalized marriage equality in those five states, which are part of the 4th, 7th, and 10th circuits. It also doomed bans in six others -- Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming -- which are bound to the same appellate rulings that were put on hold pending Supreme Court review. Since the Supreme Court declined to review, those holds were lifted and marriage equality became law of the land throughout those three circuits.
Already, Colorado’s Attorney General John Suthers has directed county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
With the 9th Circuit’s ruling, marriage equality remains undefeated at the appellate level. That means that there’s still no “circuit split” for the Supreme Court to resolve, so it’s unlikely the justices would grant review to a marriage case out of the 9th Circuit should state officials appeal. Thus, Tuesday’s ruling will apply throughout the entire 9th Circuit, effectively striking down same-sex marriage bans in three other states -- Alaska, Arizona, and Montana -- and bringing the total number of states where gay and lesbian couples can wed to 35 plus the District of Columbia. That's nearly double the number of states where same-sex couples could marry as of Sunday.
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, hailed the 9th Circuit's decision, saying it put the state on "the right side of history."
"Our state and our country are strengthened by our diversity," Reid said in a statement. "No longer will gay and lesbian Nevadans be told that their committed relationships are less than those of straight couples."
Nevada officials had declined to defend their state's same-sex marriage ban before the 9th Circuit, so the intervening defender, the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, won't have standing to appeal to the Supreme Court. It is not yet clear what Idaho officials will do. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office said in a statement it was "reviewing the decision by the court and assessing all of Idaho's legal options."
Experts say those options, however, as well as the options of other states that makes up the circuit, are limited. The same is true for states belonging to the 4th, 7th, and 10th circuits.
"Even if it takes a couple weeks or even a month for federal courts to move, I think they'll see they're bound by the rulings in their respective circuits, and they're going to have to follow those," Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told msnbc. "We know where we're going; it's just a matter of how to get there."