- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A federal judge in North Carolina has lifted stays in two cases challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriages on Wednesday, a possible sign he’s preparing to strike down the prohibition as unconstitutional.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge William L. Osteen, Jr. issued a late afternoon order lifting his earlier stays and dismissing all motions in the cases. The move came after the office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper filed documents with the court essentially dropping all further defense of the 2012 ban approved by voters.

Osteen had issued the stays in July, after Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban was struck down by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, which has jurisdiction over North Carolina. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal of the Virginia case, triggering a flurry of legal filings in North Carolina.

In an order this week, Osteen cited the 4th Circuit ruling and stated his intention to rule in favor of the nine couples challenging the state’s marriage ban and child adoption rights for same-sex partners. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina worked feverishly into the evening Wednesday to file the needed paperwork in the hopes of securing their clients’ ability to marry as early as Thursday morning.

A federal judge in Asheville, U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger, could also rule in a separate lawsuit challenging the state marriage ban on religious grounds.

The prospect that a ruling from one or the other judge could be imminent sparked excitement among same-sex couples who have waited for years to either get married in their home state or have their marriages from other states legally recognized.

In Greensboro, Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen kept his office open an hour late just in case a ruling came through that would allow him to issue a marriage license to a waiting same-sex couple. He closed up about 6 p.m.

“I’m calling all my staff tonight and telling them to prepare for tomorrow,” Thigpen said Wednesday evening. “It’s going to be controlled chaos.”

At the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in Charlotte, Scott Lindsley and Joey Hewell camped out at the register of deeds office starting at 11 a.m. in the hopes of being the first local couple to have a marriage license granted. Staff there allowed them to submit a marriage application shortly before the office closed at 5 p.m., but said it couldn’t be processed until a judge gives the order striking down the ban.

The eager pair said they would be back bright and early Thursday morning.

“We have a reference number, which is closer than we’ve been in 12 years,” Hewell said. “We’ll be here at 7:45 with coffee and a breakfast burrito. When we get that paper, we’ll be buying champagne.”

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Associated Press Photographer Chuck Burton in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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Follow Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck

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