The five-member state Supreme Court issued an order setting an Oct. 23 hearing in a case that finally could decide whether marriage licenses can be issued to gay and lesbian couples.
The court took the step a day after New Mexico’s 33 counties and county clerks statewide filed a petition asking justices to determine whether a state district judge in Albuquerque was correct last week in declaring it’s unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
More than 900 marriage licenses have been issued in New Mexico since Aug. 21, when the Dona Ana County clerk decided independently that gay marriage was allowed. Seven other counties have followed in granting licenses to same-sex couples or planning to do so, several in response to court orders.
“This is excellent news because county clerks will now know what the law is, and they’ll know how to not just administer their offices but how to serve their constituents,” said Daniel Ivey-Soto, a lawyer for clerks and a Democratic state senator from Albuquerque.
The quick hearing “indicates the Supreme Court is interested in clarifying the law,” he said.
The high court could issue a decision immediately after hearing arguments from lawyers in the case or it could take longer to make a ruling.
The justices asked parties in the case to submit written arguments by Sept. 23.
Unlike a district court ruling, a decision by the state Supreme Court will establish a statewide legal precedent.
New Mexico law doesn’t explicitly authorize or prohibit gay marriage. However, current and previous state attorney generals have said the law in effect bans same-sex marriage because state statutes contain a marriage license application with sections for male and female applications and other references to “husband” and “wife.”
A proposal to change the state constitution to legalize gay marriage failed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature this year. Lawmakers also have rejected proposals in the past to ban gay marriage and to allow domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.
The judge in Albuquerque ruled that denying marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples violated a 1972 voter-approved equal rights constitutional amendment that prohibits discrimination “on account of the sex of any person.”