Friday, May 16, 2014

Understanding The Procedural Tangle In The Arkansas Same-Sex Marriage Challenge

As lower courts strike down same-sex marriage bans in various states, and state officials scramble to stay the orders and file appeals, the procedural tangles sometimes become difficult to penetrate.  So here is an attempt to clarify where things stand procedurally in one state-- Arkansas.

On May 9, an Arkansas state trial court (the Pulaski County Circuit Court which includes the city of Little Rock) held that the state's constitutional and legislative bans on same-sex marriage violate the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.  (See prior posting.) A number of state and county officials filed an appeal with the Arkansas Supreme Court seeking an emergency stay of the trial court's order.  In Smith v. Wright, (AR Sup. Ct., May 14, 2014), the Arkansas Supreme Court dismissed the appeal without prejudice on the ground that the trial court's order was not a final adjudication of all the claims of the parties and so could not yet be appealed.  However it also held that reading the trial court's order carefully, the trial court had not issued a ruling as to Ark. Code Ann. § 9-11-208(b), prohibiting circuit and county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.  So, according to the Supreme Court, that prohibition was still in effect.

The next day, May 15, the Pulaski County Circuit Court responded by issuing three separate orders: (1) it denied a stay of its earlier ruling (full text of order); (2) the Court issued a final order permanently enjoining both the bans on same-sex marriage and the provision prohibiting circuit and county clerks from issuing licenses to same sex couples (full text of order); and (3) the court issued an order making its May 15 ruling that covered the ban on issuing marriage licenses retroactive to May 9 by an order entering the ruling nunc pro tunc. It said that the original omission of a reference to the section on issuance of licenses was an inadvertent clerical error. (Full text of ruling.) Lyle Denniston at Scotus Blog suggests that the nunc pro tunc order serves to protect those clerks who issued licenses between May 9 and 15.

According to AP, the Pulaski County clerk resumed issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples shortly after the trial court's new orders.  Other counties though are awaiting legal advice. And after same-sex marriages resumed in Pulaski County, the Arkansas attorney general's office returned to the state Supreme Court and again asked for a stay of the trial court's order, pending appeal. [Thanks to Tom Rutledge for the lead.]