What's next for Utah's gay couples

Isaac Troyo and his partner Jed Mecham get married at the Salt Lake County Government Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, Dec. 23, 2013.
Isaac Troyo and his partner Jed Mecham get married at the Salt Lake County Government Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, Dec. 23, 2013. 

The Supreme Court has granted Utah's request for a stay in their legal battle over same-sex marriage, putting a halt to same-sex marriages in the state. 

Hundreds of same-sex couples streamed into clerks' offices in Utah in the aftermath of a district court ruling striking down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage on behalf of three couples who wanted to marry or have their marriages recognized by Utah. The state appealed to the high court to stop same-sex couples from marrying while they appealed the decision, calling the marriages an "affront to the sovereignty of the state and the democratically expressed will of the people of Utah." Though Justice Sonia Sotomayor has jurisdiction over the Tenth Circuit Court, which will hear Utah's appeal, the request for a stay was referred to the entire court. The Tenth Circuit had denied an earlier request from Utah for a stay, stating that "the motion before us does not meet the requirements of the federal or local appellate rules governing a request for a stay."

The decision does not necessarily indicate how the high court will rule when and if the issue of same-sex marriage returns to their docket. 

"Basically all they're saying is let's preserve the status quo until the court of appeals has a chance to rule," said Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. The justices did not issue more than a brief statement, so it's impossible to know how the votes broke down. 

"We don't know which justices voted for the stay and why," said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law. "Some, like Scalia and Thomas, may have voted to stay the lower court ruling because they believe it was wrong. Others, like Kennedy and Ginsburg, may have voted to stay the decision because they want the case to go through the normal appellate process."

In other words, both justices on the court who are inclined to rule in favor of same-sex marriage rights and those likely to oppose them would have reasons to grant Utah's request. 

"Given the uncertainties, and the high social sensitivities, I think most of the justices, even those who would support same sex marriage, would want to move slowly so the public is prepared for a ruling of this monumental nature," said Rick Hasen, a professor at UC-Irvine School of Law. 

Hasen said the high court is likely to revisit the issue sooner rather than later, depending on how the lower court rules. "It could be a matter of months, it's more likely to be a year to a year and a half," Hasen said.

In the meantime, the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the state and the federal government to continue recognizing the marriages of couples who married during the brief period between the district court's ruling and the Supreme Court's decision to halt same-sex marriages in the state.

Those couples could find their marriages invalidated if the courts ultimately side with Utah. 

"We would take the position that they're legally married, and we would fight for that," said John Mejia of the ACLU of Utah. "Our argument would be that the marriages were valid when granted, and you can't go back and unmarry someone who's been married."