Federal Judge Orders Utah To Recognize More Than 1,300 Same-Sex Marriages

JoNell Evans and Stacia Ireland, one of the couples that sued to have their Utah marriage recognized. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER
JoNell Evans and Stacia Ireland, one of the couples that sued to have their Utah marriage recognized. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICK BOWMER

A federal judge ruled Monday that the state of Utah must recognize the more than 1,300 same-sex marriages that took place after a federal judge overturned the state’s ban in December. After that decision was stayed, Utah officials said that they would not recognize the marriages because they were “unable to reach a legal conclusion” as to their validity, though the federal government did not have the same problem.

Responding to a suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of those couples, Judge Dale Kimball, a Clinton appointee nominated by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), provided the legal conclusion the state was lacking: “Governor Gary Herbert (R) and Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) are prohibited from applying Utah’s marriage bans retroactively” to the marriages performed in December and January. The decision will take effect immediately, following a 21-day stay to allow for an appeal, should the 10th Circuit wish to consider the matter before allowing it to take hold.

In his ruling, Kimball applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor, which overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last summer, in a slightly new context compared to the other marriage equality rulings over the past year. Though marriage equality opponents argue in state marriage cases that Windsor still entitles states to make their own decisions regarding the definition of marriage, Utah’s particular action here closely resembles the effect of DOMA — treating some marriages that were already legal according to state law at the time they were entered into differently from others of the same legal status. Kimball noted that like in Windsor, Utah’s decision “deprive[s] some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities.” Likewise, the effect of this “is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal” — quotes from Windsor in both cases. Thus, Kimball’s ruling did not interpret Windsor for application at a state level; he applied it directly.

The state tried to argue that should the original decision that legalized marriage equality (Kitchen v. Herbert) be overturned by a higher court, that would nullify the marriages that took place, but Kimball was not convinced. He pointed out that precedent actually suggests that the legal consequences related to actions that took place during an injunction do not disappear when the injunction is reversed. Thus, regardless of the outcome in Kitchen, Utah will still be obligated to recognize these 1300+ marriages. It doesn’t matter when the State might try to retroactively nullify the marriages; it would always infringe “upon fundamental constitutional protections for the marriage relationship.”

The questions answered in this decision also impact questions posed to the Utah Supreme Court regarding the validity of these marriages — particularly because of the complicated way that adoption proceedings have played out in state courts. Kimball, however, made no exceptions in his ruling for the state court to consider. Thus, so long as the 10th Circuit does not stay or alter the recognition of the marriages when this decision is appealed, the questions before the Utah Supreme Court will be moot.

Though states weighing similar questions — namely, Michigan and Arkansas — fall are under different federal court jurisdictions, Kimball’s ruling could at least offer some precedent. Indeed, even he relied on the only other similar ruling, which was when the California Supreme Court determined the fate of same-sex marriages performed before the passage of Proposition 8. Judges in other parts of the country may now look to Kimball’s decision, the first addressing the legal limbo of same-sex marriages by a federal judge, as a new precedent when deciding similar cases.