Early in their 25-year relationship, Miriam Rand and Ona Lara Porter had to overcome discrimination within their own family. Outraged that her daughter was a lesbian, Rand’s dying mother forbade Porter from setting foot on her property, and Rand's brothers took out a restraining order to keep their sister’s partner from the hospital.
Two decades later, when Rand again had to deal with losing a family member--this time, a sister--it was a different experience. The same brothers who had once taken legal action against her were by then completely supportive. Porter made all of the medical decisions. And Porter was the only one in the hospital, holding Rand’s sister in her arms, when she passed away.
The couple, who married last month in New Mexico, see the disparate events as a symbol of how far attitudes toward gay equality have come, progress that will be tested before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday. Rand and Porter are two of twelve plaintiffs fighting to add New Mexico to a list of 14 states plus the District of Columbia that allow gay couples to legally wed.
Wednesday’s hearing comes just two days after marriage equality officially became the law of the land in New Jersey, the fifth state this year to drop its prohibition on gay nuptials. It also follows two historic Supreme Court rulings that cleared the way for the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, and for gay couples to resume marrying in the state of California.
In an interview with MSNBC, the two women--who have been crafting their legal strategy for the last three years--said they felt confident that 2013 would be their year.
“Both nationally and on a state level, it’s become very clear that the public sentiment around gay marriage has changed substantially,” said Rand. “I’m feeling like we’ll get a holiday present from the [state] Supreme Court in December. That’s my intuition.”
“You better trust that, she’s got a really big intuition,” said Porter.
In a flock of state and federal challenges that have yielded historic gains for marriage equality this year, New Mexico’s case is something of an odd bird. Unlike Illinois or Arkansas, for example, which are facing state court battles over explicit bans on same-sex marriage, New Mexico is the only state in the country with no legislation either denying or permitting gay couples to marry. Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing with plaintiffs like Rand and Porter on one side, and county clerks on the other, is therefore as much about clarity as it is about equality.
“All of the clerks want certainty about the state of the law in New Mexico,” said Laura Schauer Ives, legal director of New Mexico’s American Civil Liberties Union on a press call Monday. “Some county clerks want to give marriage licenses; others don’t.”
One of those clerks is Lynn Ellins, who began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on August 22. Since then, seven others have followed in his footsteps, either at the direction of a district judge, or of their own volition.
“I didn’t think about it much over the years until the lawsuit started in Albuquerque to require county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses,” said Ellins, a civil libertarian and gay-rights advocate for a quarter-century. “I thought it would probably be two to three years before the matter was resolved, so I figured I ought to do something about it and perhaps speed up the process.”
In two months, over 900 same-sex couples have married in New Mexico, prompting a group of conservative legislatures to file a separate lawsuit against Ellins for overstepping his authority. The same group of opponents has also submitted an amicus brief in the case before the Supreme Court arguing that state statutes contain a marriage license application using the terms “husband” and “wife,” and differentiating between male and female applicants.
Plaintiffs and their attorneys counter that those terms could still apply to same-sex marriage, and even if they did not, that equal protection guarantees in New Mexico’s constitution trump any state statutes.
“We argue that the denial of equal marriage rights violates the Equal Rights Amendment and also violates the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Peter S. Kierst, an attorney with Sutin, Thayer & Brown. “What this all boils down to is that our clients--when it comes to being married--are similarly situated to everyone else who wants to get married, and the court ought to treat them that way.”
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has said the issue should be decided by voters, who support same-sex marriage--51% to 42%--according to a recent poll conducted by Anzalone Liszt Grove for Why Marriage Matters New Mexico. The state’s Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat who plans on challenging Martinez next year, has told New Mexico’s highest court that prohibiting same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
The court has indicated that it will not rule from the bench on Wednesday, but that oral arguments will last around two hours. Plaintiffs will be joined by their families and approximately 150 spectators, anxious to hear whether the state’s recent flood of same-sex marriages will be able to continue.
“We want what everyone wants out of life--to commit to a person, and know that they’re taken care of,” said Rose Griego, the named plaintiff in Wednesday’s hearing, to MSNBC. Griego gained two teenage sons when she began her relationship with their mother--now, her spouse--ten years ago.
“If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is,” she said.