Utah district court’s ruling could be most significant ruling in fight for marriage equality

The federal district court’s ruling Friday in Utah, striking down the state’s constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage ,set off a frenzy as same-sex couples rushed to get married and officials in one of the nation’s most conservative states set off to have the ruling put on hold while it appeals.

The amendment defined marriage as being between one man and one women. In the 53-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby called the 2004 voter-approved amendment a violation of gay couples’ rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment and that the state had failed to show that allowing same-sex marriages would affect opposite-sex marriages in any way.

It’s easy to think the most significant thing about this case is the ruling makes Utah the 18th state where same-sex marriages are legal. But it’s important to point out that this case was decided by a federal judge, who was tapped by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and nominated by President Obama in 2011, and not by the state’s Supreme Court or voters, which has been the case in 16 of the other 17 states where same-sex marriage is legal.

That fact, and the case’s central findings, makes this case significant because it could be the case that legalizes same-sex marriages across the nation.

California is the other state where an attempt to ban same-sex marriage has been struck down by a federal court. That case, Perry v. Hollingsworth, challenged a voter-approved measure limiting marriage in the state of Californian between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decided that case on lack of standing grounds.

Deciding the case on the lack of grounds basis did two things: 1) It limited the ruling to the state of California and 2) allowed the court to dodge the issue of gay Americans’ constitutional rights to get legally married.

The Supreme Court has never held if the right to marry a member of the same gender  is a fundamental right, which would entitle it to the full protection of the Constitution. In each case it has heard so far, it has looked for other grounds to reach a decision.

The Utah ruling puts the issue front and center in front of them, should they choose to hear the case, and force them to effectively decide the issue for the first time across the nation. If the Supreme Court decides in favor of same-sex marriage and upholds the ruling, it would become the law across the nation.

Twenty-six states have amendments to their constitution that limit marriages to a man and a woman. A US Supreme Court upholding Shelby’s decision that such language violates gay couples’ rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment would invalidate each of those amendments, rending them unconstitutional.

If states didn’t repeal the amendment themselves, any gay couple that wanted to get married in one of those states would have standing to sue and because the Supreme Court’s decisions are binding to all courts in the nation, courts would have no other choice but to reach the same conclusion that the Utah district court did.

But this isn’t an automatic determination. The Court could determine not to hear the case. It only hears a small percentage of cases each year.  It could also hear the case and rule that the right f0r gay couples to marry isn’t protected by the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Before the case can reach the Supreme Court of the United States, it will first be appealed to the 10th Circuit. The Circuit could also decide not to hear the case or to hear it and overturn the ruling. If the Court does not hear the case, then the ruling of the court below it is final and in no way signifies if the court agrees or disagrees with the ruling. This would limit the case’s reach to strictly Utah. However, the Supreme Court could still decide to hear the case even if the 10th Circuit refused to do so.

But if it upholds the case, the decision would be binding to all the states in the 10th Circuit, which are: Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, plus those portions of the Yellowstone National Park extending into Montana and Idaho.

Oklahoma and Kansas have constitutional amendments similar to Utah’s. Wyoming has a state statue limiting marriage between a man and a woman. Same-sex marriages became legal in New Mexico and Colorado earlier this year.

The fact that this case is being held in the federal court system, which can potentially extends the holding to each state in the nation, and that it addresses the issue of the constitutional right to marry makes it one of the most significant rulings on this issue.



Can the 10th Circuit’s ruling directly affect Idaho?

No. While the majority of Yellowstone Park is located in Wyoming, three percent of the park is located in Montana and the remaining one percent is found in Idaho, about a 50-square mile area.

In theory, a gay couple could seek a marriage licenses in that small part area, be denied a license and sue using the 10th Circuit ruling as binding law in that part of the state and then that county would be forced to issue them a license in Idaho to get married in that county. In reality, no one lives in that part of the state and there are no county governments located there handing out licenses to anyone, so no one can go there and ask for one and be denied, and have standing to sue using the 10th Circuit’s ruling.

The only way a 10th Circuit’s ruling could affect Idaho is if it is upheld or overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States.