The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay Wednesday halting gay marriage from taking effect in Virginia this week, signaling the justices are inching closer to taking up a case that could definitively decide between the rights of states to recognize marriages and the federal government’s guarantee of equal protection.
Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr., who handles such requests from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, referred the matter to the full court, which ordered the Virginia stay until federal appeals in the case are resolved. The order did not elaborate on the reasoning behind the decision.
The development came as little surprise. Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a similar order in January after a federal judge ruled Utah’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.
The fast pace at which the Virginia case has hurtled through the judicial system puts it in the running to advance to the Supreme Court if justices choose to hear a gay marriage case this coming term, said Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond Law School. Utah and Oklahoma have also requested that cases from their states be heard by the court.
But he noted that with other gay marriage cases still working their way through the pipeline in a number of circuits, the court could wait to see additional outcomes before selecting a case to consider. Additional cases are expected to be heard in the 7th Circuit and the 9th Circuit.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has heard arguments in six cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, and it could be the first to uphold gay marriage bans in the wake of more than 20 consecutive rulings in the past eight months. Conflicting rulings from different federal appeals courts would likely increase the chance the Supreme Court would decide to address the issue.
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat who supports gay marriage, asked the Supreme Court to grant the stay in his state to avoid the kind of uncertainty that came with divergent rulings in Utah.
The Supreme Court’s stay in Utah, which halted gay marriages in the state until federal appeals were exhausted, was issued just over two weeks after a District Court decision legalized the unions. It left uncertain the state’s obligation to recognize the more than 1,000 same-sex marriages performed during the 17 days in which the ban was lifted.
“To avoid [the] kind of legal confusion that might occur in the event there were an adverse ruling later by the Supreme Court, I reluctantly agreed that a stay was appropriate,” Mr. Herring told reporters on Wednesday after the stay was announced.
Mr. Herring said he thought a Supreme Court ruling on the Virginia case “would resolve a number of outstanding legal issues,” and he hoped the case could be the precedent by which gay marriage was legalized nationally.
The attorney general, who announced in January that he would not defend the state’s gay marriage ban, noted that his office has worked to expedite the case and hoped the Supreme Court would consider his request to hear the case.
“To those who are tired of their state not treating them fairly and equally, I am working as hard as I can to fight for equality,” Mr. Herring said.