SANTA FE – Years of legal debate over gay marriage in New Mexico finally reaches the state’s highest court on Wednesday.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments – but will not issue an immediate ruling – after considering reams of briefs from attorneys on both sides.
Already, a state district judge has ruled that barring same-sex marriages amounts to discrimination under New Mexico’s Equal Rights Amendment. Eight of the state’s 33 counties are issuing same-sex marriage licenses, but advocates and opponents alike await a statewide ruling from the Supreme Court.
A ruling favorable to gay marriage backers would make New Mexico the 15th state to affirm the legality of same-sex unions.
And for the more than 900 same-sex couples across the state who have gotten married in New Mexico within the past two months, a favorable ruling offers the final step in legitimacy in the eyes of the law.
“It’s been a lifetime of waiting,” said Rose Griego of Santa Fe, who, along with her wife, Kimberly Kiel, is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “But we didn’t expect it would happen this quickly in our lifetimes.”
The Supreme Court will hear two hours of testimony on the case Wednesday but will not issue a so-called “bench” ruling, the court’s clerk said Monday. That means it could be weeks – or months – before a final decision is released.
Attorneys representing the same-sex couples have largely based their argument around the Constitution’s equal protection provision, which they say allows for gay marriage.
They also say they’re optimistic about their chances before the Supreme Court.
“We’re very hopeful the court will confirm the right to marry for same-sex couples around the state,” said Elizabeth Gill, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney, during a Monday conference call with reporters.
Meanwhile, an attorney for GOP legislators who have filed lawsuits against county clerks voluntarily issuing same-sex marriage licenses, said the equal rights language was not intended to lead to gay marriage being sanctioned.
Albuquerque attorney Paul Becht also predicted the state’s highest court will not rush to a decision in the case.
“I think they’re going to want to get it right,” Becht told the Journal . “It’s going to be a tough one for them.”
New Mexico is unique in that it has not explicitly allowed or disallowed same-sex marriage through legislation, a popular vote or a high court ruling, according to experts. That has led to a range of legal interpretations.
However, state law does require “male” and “female” to be listed on marriage application forms, a fact that opponents of gay marriage have seized upon.
The Supreme Court, which denied several previous requests to intervene in same-sex marriage lawsuits, decided to hold a hearing on the issue after the state’s 33 county clerks appealed a lower court ruling in hopes of getting a decisive, statewide decision.
That lower court ruling, issued Aug. 26 by District Judge Alan Malott of Albuquerque, compelled county clerks in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
In all, a total of eight New Mexico counties – Doña Ana, Taos, Grant, Valencia, Los Alamos and San Miguel, in addition to Bernalillo and Santa Fe – have begun issuing marriage licenses in the past two months, either voluntarily or in response to lower court rulings.
Griego and Kiel, who got married the day after Malott’s ruling, said Monday that they’re not dwelling on the possibility the Supreme Court might rule against same-sex marriage.
“I don’t think New Mexico is the kind of state that takes away people’s rights,” Griego said.
As for Wednesday’s hearing, the state’s highest court is bracing for a large crowd of advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage. To accommodate the masses, the court is planning to open overflow rooms so that those who cannot find a seat in the cramped court chambers can watch the oral arguments remotely.
In the weeks leading up to the high-profile hearing, a socially conservative group called the Traditional Values Advocacy Committee has been urging opponents of gay marriage to write letters to Supreme Court justices and urge them to confirm “God’s definition” of marriage.
Supporters of same-sex marriage plan to give out “I Do” donuts and coffee before the hearing begins.
The New Mexico Supreme Court oral arguments will occur just days after the gay marriage movement won its latest victory. New Jersey on Monday effectively became the 14th state to recognize the legality of gay marriage after Gov. Chris Christie announced he would drop his court challenge.