State officials in Utah struck out in a federal district court this week, where a judge struck down Utah's ban on same-sex marriages and refused to issue a stay leaving the law in place. The state hoped to have better luck at the federal appeals court.
Instead, last night, proponents of marriage equality received a welcome early Christmas present.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Utah for less than a week, and already, the state is running out of options to stop it. Late Tuesday, the 10th Circuit Court in Denver denied Utah's request to put a halt to the marriages, hundreds of which have been happening throughout the state since Friday. According to the order, the state failed to demonstrate it was suffering "irreparable harm" as a result of the legalization of same-sex marriage and also failed to show it had a "significant likelihood" of prevailing in its appeal to the circuit court.
In practical terms, the moment the federal district court struck down Utah's ban as unconstitutional, equal marriage rights immediately applied to the Beehive State. Last night, the 10th Circuit said the marriages can continue while the legal process unfolds -- suggesting state officials are likely to lose their case at the appellate level, too.
So, what can Utah do now to block legally recognized same-sex marriages? The next step will be state officials seeking a stay from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is assigned oversight over 10th Circuit cases. If she declines, state officials may seek emergency relief from the entire U.S. Supreme Court, which appears to be a long shot, at best.
In the meantime, same-sex couples in Utah who wish to marry will be able to do so. According to the Salt Lake Tribune's report, as of yesterday, four of the state's 29 counties were refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but that was before last night's news. If these counties continue to ignore the courts, they'll be breaking the law and could be subject to penalties.
Looking ahead, keep an eye on the U.S. Supreme Court, which seems likely to deliver more bad news for state officials in Utah. As for the 10th Circuit ruling on the merits of the case, the process will take months.