The Supreme Court on Monday halted gay marriages in Utah, drawing one step closer to addressing whether there is a constitutional right to such unions.
The order from Justice Sonia Sotomayor was only procedural, and gives officials in Utah more time to appeal a federal judge’s ruling in late December that struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
“[The justices know] it’s inevitable that they will have to decide the question of same-sex marriage,” said Steve Sanders, associate professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law.
The Supreme Court struck down DOMA in United States v. Windsor, ruling that the law violates the Fifth Amendment by treating some state-sanctioned marriages differently.
While the ruling sidestepped the question of whether there is a right to gay marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted in his dissent that the majority’s logic in the case would inevitably lead to gay marriage bans being struck down.
Scalia’s prediction came true in Utah, where federal judge Robert J. Shelby tossed out Utah’s gay marriage prohibition as a violation of the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses.
“The court agrees with Justice Scalia’s interpretation of Windsor and finds that the important federalism concerns at issue here are nevertheless insufficient to save a state-law prohibition that denies the Plaintiffs their rights to due process and equal protection under the law,” Shelby wrote.
Court watchers say Monday’s order made clear that the nine justices are not yet ready to make a blanket, nationwide decision on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.
“I don’t know if you’re getting any hints about what the Court might ultimately decide on this substantive issue,” said Melissa Murray, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley.
Still, experts said the justices might be forced to revisit the issue sooner rather than later if gay marriage bans begin to fall across the country.
“They will most likely decide that it is required by the Constitution. They’re not willing to get there yet, and they don’t want to be pushed into doing something before they’re ready to do it,” Sanders said.
More than 900 same-sex couples in Utah have obtained a marriage license since Shelby’s decision, outraging political leaders in the conservative-leaning state.
Utah officials are asking a federal appeals court in the 10th circuit to reinstate the ban permanently, and Gov. Gary Herbert (R) said he is confident the state will win.
“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,” Hebert said in a statement.
If the state’s appeal fails, Utah could again become the 18th state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow gay marriages.
Experts said it’s possible the Utah case will eventually reach the Supreme Court, though Sanders said there’s “no way” it would happen in this term, because the court adjourns in mid-summer.
But the court could very easily take up the Utah case, or a similar one, when it starts a new term in October, Sanders said.
How the court would rule in a broad constitutional case is unclear.
The justices were trying to “walk a very fine line” in the ruling that stuck down DOMA, Sanders said. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, used “strong, sympathetic language” favoring same-sex couples, which Sanders said lower courts are beginning to seize on.
Murray drew parallels between the legal debate over same-sex marriage and the debate over interracial marriage more than 50 years ago. A year after the landmark decision in Brown v. Board to desegregate schools, she said, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark decided to not take up a case in Virginia that involved a ban on interracial marriage.
“One bombshell at a time is enough,” Clark said at the time.
While gay rights proponents said they were disappointed that marriages had been stopped in Utah, they expressed confidence that their cause will eventually prevail at the highest court in the land.
“The movement on this issue really moves in one direction. I don’t think the decision by the court today sort of changes that in any way,” said Brian Moulton, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign.
This article was updated at 8:26 p.m.