Supreme Court Delays Benefits for Utah Gay Couples
More than 1,000 same-sex married couples in Utah will have to wait longer for state benefits after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday that state officials don't have to recognize the marriages until their appeal is heard.
The couples were wed during a 17-day stretch in December when same-sex marriages were legal before the nation's highest court put the practice on hold. They had been set to get benefits Monday.
Instead, couples including Matthew Barraza and Tony Milner will have to put off plans to apply for benefits such as child custody. They have a pending request to have Milner recognized as a legal parent of their son, Jesse, who is only Barraza's son under the law. Barraza called the ruling disappointing.
"I know these things take time, but every day there's a degree of anxiety about our family and our situation with our son," Barraza said. "We just want all the protections that come along with marriage, for our family to be treated fairly like anyone else."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert applauded the Supreme Court's decision. "I believe states have the right to determine their laws regarding marriage and, as I have said all along, that decision will ultimately come from the United States Supreme Court," he said in a statement.
The Supreme Court's order doesn't apply to any other states, but it could foretell how the high court would deal with similar situations elsewhere, said Douglas NeJaime, a University of California-Irvine law professor. Hundreds of other gay couples also married in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana after state bans were struck down and before those rulings were put on hold.
The order from the high court does not, however, reveal anything about how the justices might eventually rule on the overarching issue of the constitutionality of state gay marriage bans, NeJaime said.
"It's just saying that it makes sense to keep things they are until there is a ruling on the merits," NeJaime said.
In January, the Supreme Court granted Utah's request to bring gay marriages to a halt pending appeal.
In its request to the high court this week, Utah argued benefits should be delayed until that larger issue of marriage bans makes its way through the courts.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the benefits lawsuit on behalf of four couples including Barraza and Milner, says the marriages are valid no matter what is ultimately decided on the ban.
This case regarding state benefits for the Utah couples is separate from the ongoing judicial review of the constitutionality of the state's same-sex marriage ban. In that case, the 10th Circuit recently upheld the December opinion from a federal judge in Utah who overturned the ban. Utah state officials plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Legal experts say the Supreme Court eventually will take a gay marriage case after one or more appeals court rulings, but that won't happen until 2015 at the earliest. And the high court is under no obligation to take up the issue. The three-judge 10th Circuit panel that ruled in favor of gay marriage in cases out of Utah and Oklahoma is the first to rule out of six circuits hearing appeals.
Utah's same-sex marriage ban was struck down in December. Utah officials froze benefits for the couples, arguing it had no choice but to hold off until an appeals court ruled on same-sex marriage. That triggered the lawsuit from the ACLU.
In May, a different federal judge sided with the gay couples, ruling Utah must grant benefits - such as child custody - to those couples. But the decision was put on hold.
This month, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Utah's request for an indefinite delay on the ruling and gave Utah until July 21 to ask the Supreme Court to weigh in.