Jan. 8, 2014 (FRC) – While the country shivered through frigid temperatures Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court put something else on ice: the same-sex “marriages” of Utah couples. After two weeks of chaos, America's most powerful court put the brakes on one rogue judge's decision to single-handedly overturn the state's marriage amendment.
The December 20th ruling took several people by surprise — including Governor Gary Herbert (R), who called out District Court Judge Robert Shelby as an “activist” who jeopardized the state's right “to define marriage through ordinary democratic channels.” For Utah, it was the second major marriage headline in less than a month — thrusting the state back into the spotlight it left when Judge Clark Waddoups stunned everyone by decriminalizing polygamy.
Of course, marriage has always been a hot-button issue in Utah, dating back to the state's earliest days. And that isn't likely to change now, as Utah becomes the venue for the first challenge to a state marriage law since the Supreme Court struck down part of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) last June. When Governor Herbert gears up for an appeal to Judge Shelby's overreach, he'll have new state attorney general, Sean Reyes, to lead the charge. Picked to take over the post when his predecessor resigned, Reyes promised, “My intention … is to continue to defend the laws that have been passed by the people of Utah.”
Although the Governor and Attorney General raced to block Judge Shelby's decision before it could take effect, they were rejected — not once, but four times. In a last-ditch attempt, they pled their case to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has jurisdiction over the 10th Circuit Court they appealed to. The request put the Supreme Court on the spot on one question it carefully avoided in its June Prop 8 decision: state sovereignty on marriage. Recognizing the importance of the suit and its implications for individual marriage amendments, Sotomayor took the unusual step of referring the question to the entire court.
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Unanimously, the nine justices agreed that one person shouldn't have the power to create same-sex “marriage” in a state that democratically outlawed it. The justices ordered Utah officials to stop issuing “marriage” licenses to homosexual couples — something they had done 1,300 times in the 17 days since Shelby's ruling. While Governor Herbert cheered the Supreme Court for intervening, he understands that it never should have come to this.
“Clearly, the stay should have been granted with the original district court decision in order to have avoided the uncertainty created by this unprecedented change,” Herbert told the Salt Lake Tribune. “As I have said all along, all Utahns deserve to have this issue resolved through a fair and complete judicial process. I firmly believe this is a state-rights issue, and I will work to defend the position of the people of Utah and our State Constitution.” Unfortunately for Governor Herbert and voters, the lower courts' stubbornness is already creating a huge headache for Utah officials, who have no idea how to clean up the legal mess of the 1,300 couples created before the justices stepped in. Still, that chaos will be mild in comparison to the long-term consequences of redefining natural marriage.
For now, Utah can take comfort in the Supreme Court's rebuke of the kind of judicial activism that led to decisions like Shelby's. At the very least, it shows the justices' desire for consistency with their June 26 opinion, which insisted that states have the “historic and essential authority to define the marital relation.” Let's hope the 10th Circuit Court, who will hear the case next, is listening.
Reprinted with permission from the Family Research Council.