- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas’ highest court ruled Thursday that its current lineup of justices should decide whether to legalize gay marriage in the state, which could clear the way for a decision that has been delayed for months by an unusually public split on the court.

The state Supreme Court ruled that Justice Rhonda Wood, who took office in January, should participate in the case, not Special Justice Robert McCorkindale, who was appointed by former Gov. Mike Beebe last year and who heard oral arguments in November.

“Our constitution provides for the elected justices of this court to determine pending appeals,” the court wrote in its ruling. “Special justices are temporary and their appointments cannot be used to thwart the clear language and intent of our constitution.”

The dispute over whether Wood or McCorkindale would hear the case effectively sidelined it.

The state is appealing Pulaski County Judge Chris Piazza’s decision last year striking down a constitutional amendment and earlier state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. More than 500 gay couples were issued marriage licenses before the state Supreme Court suspended Piazza’s ruling.

Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justice Paul Danielson recused from the case over which justice should participate, and both accused the court majority of unnecessarily delaying the case. Wood also recused from the case over whether she should serve. Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month appointed three justices to the spinoff case.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court defended its actions and said the dispute needed to be resolved before it could take up the gay marriage case.

“The purpose of the present action is to resolve this issue so that the underlying case can be determined and not for the purpose of delay,” Justice Karen Baker wrote in the court’s ruling.

Cheryl Maples, an attorney for the gay couples challenging Arkansas’ ban, initially argued that McCorkindale should decide the case, but Maples reversed course and told the court she wouldn’t take a position on the matter. She said she believed McCorkindale should be hearing the case, but said she believed the court would strike down the ban no matter the lineup.

“I disagree with their decision, but we can live with it and maybe we can get a ruling finally,” Maples said.

The ruling doesn’t guarantee that the Arkansas court will decide before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last week on whether to legalize gay marriage and is expected to rule by late June. A federal appeals court has put a separate challenge to Arkansas’ ban on hold while the nation’s high court decides.

Also pending before the state Supreme Court is a request by the state for new oral arguments before the court, a move that Maples has opposed. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she was pleased with Thursday’s ruling.

“My office stands ready to defend Amendment 83 in a second oral argument should the Justices decide that it would be beneficial,” she said in a statement released by her office.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ademillo

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