Thursday, July 17, 2014

Any Day Now — Updated

Three judges are poised to rule on marriage equality in Florida.

Each case deals with different set of couples who want to get married in different counties, but the basic question is the same: Does Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage violate an individual’s right under the U.S. Constitution to equal protection?

“Literally any second now we could get rulings from the judges in one or more of those cases,” said Mary Meeks, an Orlando attorney helping represent six gay couples in the Miami-Dade County case.

Beyond those three lawsuits, two other legal challenges also are pending, but those rulings are not imminent.

All of the cases challenge the ban on gay marriage in Florida’s constitution, an amendment approved in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote.

But John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council, the Orlando group that championed the amendment, predicted Tuesday that Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel in Miami-Dade would soon overturn it.

He was in her courtroom July 2 listening to lawyers argue the case. That included his lawyer, Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel, who urged Zabel to uphold the ban.

“It was rather stunning,” Stemberger said of that hearing. “I don’t expect her to uphold the law.”

As is the case with most of the other states where courts have overturned bans on marriage equality, a ruling from the court in Miami-Dade County does not mean that happy couples can line up at the county clerk’s office all over the state to get licenses.  The ruling will be for the county alone and will most certainly be stayed pending appeal.  But there is a chance that one of the cases could have state-wide impact.

A more sweeping ruling could come from U.S. Circuit Court Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee. He’s presiding over the most complicated case: a consolidated pair of lawsuits asking him allow a same-sex couple to get married and force Florida to recognize the marital rights of 10 same-sex couples and a widow who got married in other states or Canada.

Daniel Tilley, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents eight of those couples, was optimistic Tuesday.

“We expect that could come any day now,” he said.

If one of the judges rules in favor of gay marriage, it’s also not clear whether the change would take effect immediately or whether the losing side would first be given time to file an appeal.

No matter the outcome, lawyers expect a series of appeals, something that would likely put the issue before the Florida Supreme Court or a federal appeals court, whose rulings would be binding statewide.

I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: The court has ruled in the Monroe County case: The wedding is on, but not until Tuesday.

Monroe County Circuit Judge Luis Garcia overturned Florida’s 2008 constitutional gay-marriage ban on Thursday, and ordered that two Key West bartenders and other gay couples seeking to wed be allowed to marry.

The judge gave the Monroe County Clerk’s Office until Tuesday to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

“The court is aware that the majority of voters oppose same-sex marriage, but it is our country’s proud history to protect the rights of the individual, the rights of the unpopular and rights of the powerless, even at the cost of offending the majority,” Garcia wrote in his opinion, released about 1 p.m. Thursday.

The judge gave the clerk’s office several days to prepare “in consideration of… anticipated rise in activity.”