The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will hear a series of marriage equality cases this term, meaning the high court could decide the fate of marriage equality nationwide by the end of June, according to BuzzFeed.
After today's private, closed-door conference of the nine justices on the Supreme Court agreed to review four marriage cases from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which last November became the first federal appeals court to uphold any state's marriage ban since the Supreme Court's landmark June 2013 decision in U.S. v. Windsor. The marriages cases to appear before the nation's high court later this year originated in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. As they were in the Sixth Circuit ruling, the four cases will be consolidated, according to today's orders from the Supreme Court.
In addition to consolidating the cases, that order asks attorneys on both sides to limit their arguments to address two fundamental questions at issue in all the cases:
1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? 2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?
The order also explains that attorneys on both sides will have a combined 90 minutes for oral arguments on the first question, and a combined 60 minutes to address the court's second question. The court requested briefs from the parties seeking review to be filed by 2 p.m. February 27.
Although the cases have not yet been scheduled for a hearing, SCOTUSblog reports that they are likely to heard in April, meaning a decision would be handed down by the end of the court's 2015 term in late June.
Today's decision was widely anticipated after November's ruling from the Sixth Circuit, which created what is known as a circuit split, where federal appeals courts in various circuits have arrived at conflicting rulings on the same issue. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg even alluded to the likelihood that the high court would take up a case out of the Sixth Circuit at a speaking engagement last September.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder responded to the news with a statement that confirmed his office will file friend-of-the-court briefs in all four cases, encouraging the nation's high court to secure the freedom to marry nationwide. Holder's office and the Obama Adminstration at large has already extended all federal benefits available to married couples to legally married same-sex partners, regardless of whether the couple's home state recognizes their marriage.
"We will keep striving to secure equal treatment for all members of society —regardless of sexual orientation," said Holder in a statement from the DOJ Friday afternoon. "As such, we expect to file a ‘friend of the court’ brief in these cases that will urge the Supreme Court to make marriage equality a reality for all Americans. It is time for our nation to take another critical step forward to ensure the fundamental equality of all Americans — no matter who they are, where they come from, or whom they love."
The same-sex couples who filed the initial lawsuit in Michigan were excited by the new development.
"We are now that much closer to being fully recognized as a family, and we are thrilled," said April DeBoer, one of the plaintiffs in the Michigan case. "This opportunity for our case to be heard by the Supreme Court gives us and families like ours so much reason to be hopeful."
"Our families, communities and the schools all see us as a family," added DeBoer's partner, Jayne Rowse, in a statement from Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. "We juggle our jobs and a houseful of children and wouldn’t have it any other way. Soon, we hope to have the same recognition and share the same protections and responsibilities as all other families."
GLAD, which is representing the DeBoer-Rowse family in court, urged the court to take this opportunity to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples.
"By choosing to hear the DeBoer case, the Court now has the opportunity to end the injustices facing gay families in Michigan and so many other states, and to ensure that same-sex couples nationwide are free to move for work, school, or to care for elderly parents without jeopardizing their family’s security," said attorney Dana Nessel in the same statement.
Plaintiffs in the Kentucky case were similarly encouraged by today's announcement.
"We are hopeful this review means we will soon be able to enjoy the rights and protections associated with marriage," said Kentucky plaintiff Randy Johnson in a statement with the American Civil Liberties Union. "Because of [my partner] Paul’s cancer, the potential for an unfortunate, untimely death has worried us that I would be vulnerable to discriminatory laws that do not recognize us as a family."
The Tennessee plaintiffs echoed the same concerns and hope in a statement issued by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is representing the same-sex couples seeking the freedom to marry in that state.
"This is an important day because it means that our family will finally have an opportunity to share our story with the Court and explain how this discriminatory law hurts us each day," said Dr. Valeria Tanco, who has a young daughter with her partner, Dr. Sophy Jesty. "We live in fear for ourselves and our little girl because we don’t have the same legal protections in Tennessee as other families. We are hopeful the Supreme Court will resolve this issue so we no longer need to live in fear."
"We are thrilled the court will finally decide this issue,” said James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project. "The country is ready for a national solution that treats lesbian and gay couples fairly. Every single day we wait means more people die before they have a chance to marry, more children are born without proper protections, more people face medical emergencies without being able to count on recognition of their spouses. It is time for the American values of freedom and equality to apply to all couples."
At press time, same-sex marriage is legal in 36 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, with litigation challenging marriage bans in all 14 states where they remain.