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High court defers on gay marriage

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New Mexico’s highest court isn’t going to immediately decide whether gay marriage is legal in the state and instead will allow lower courts to first consider the issue.

The state Supreme Court has denied requests by same-sex couples from Santa Fe, Albuquerque and other communities who had asked the justices to declare gay marriage legal.

Two lawsuits were filed directly with the court to try to get a speedy decision, but the justices rejected them on Thursday in brief orders without a detailed explanation. However, the justices said the gay marriage issue could be pursued in a lower court “with a right to request expedited review.”

Rep. Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe lawyer handling one of the cases, said his clients – two Santa Fe men who were denied a marriage license – will file a lawsuit in state district court soon. He said it was highly unusual for the Supreme Court to explicitly indicate there’s a right to get a quick ruling in a case.

“We see this as a bit of a delay, but we’re seeing this as a very unique and much appreciated statement by the court recognizing the importance of the issue that we brought before them and expressing their view, I think, that this matter is going to be back to them sooner than later,” said Egolf.

Laura Schauer Ives, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said, “While we would have liked for the court to hear this issue immediately, we are encouraged that the court recognizes that this is an important case that should be decided promptly. We look forward to moving this case through the courts as quickly as possible.”

The ACLU and the National Center for Lesbian Rights had filed a lawsuit on behalf of six same-sex couples from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Farmington and Jemez Springs. Some of the couples are seeking to be married in New Mexico while others want the courts to decide whether New Mexico recognizes gay marriages from other states.

There’s no provision in New Mexico law specifically authorizing or prohibiting gay marriage. County clerks have denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples in part because there is a marriage license application form in state statutes that contains sections for male and female applicants.

Both lawsuits contended that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples violates the New Mexico Constitution, including provisions that guarantee due process and equal protection under the law.

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, in written arguments submitted to the Supreme Court, said state law effectively prohibited gay marriage but that was unconstitutional. However, King also said the gay marriage lawsuit wasn’t properly before the Supreme Court and should be handled initially by a lower court.

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