The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals today denied a request from Florida officials to extend a stay placed on a district court's pro-equality ruling, meaning marriage equality could arrive in the Sunshine State on January 6.
The one-page order grants the state's request for an "expedited review" of the motion, then flatly denies the state's petition to extend the stay placed on U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle's pro-equality ruling, which is set to expire "at the end of the day on January 5, 2015."
Florida officials, including Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, both Republicans, have two additional options to try to delay the arrival of marriage equality after today's decision from a three-judge panel at the 11th Circuit. The state could ask the full 11th Circuit to consider its request, a process known as an en banc hearing, or it could appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking an extension of the stay. If the Supreme Court denies that request, marriage equality would take effect in Florida on January 6, when Hinkle's stay has expired.
While it's impossible to know how the nation's high court would rule on such a request, similar efforts to delay marriage equality in other states with pro-equality federal court rulings have been rejected by a majority of justices on the Supreme Court. However, it's worth noting that reliably conservative Justice Clarence Thomas oversees requests from the 11th Circuit. Thomas and his fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia have opposed the court's denial of such stays on marriage cases out of several states, and last month issued a scathing dissent in an unrelated case that lamented the court's refusal to put marriage equality on hold while state appeals work their way through the appeals process.
U.S. District Judge Hinkle issued his strongly worded pro-equality decision in August, finding the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. After the state appealed his ruling to the 11th Circuit, he agreed in November to extend the stay until January 5, to give the appeals court time to consider the issue.
Notably, today's order from the 11th Circuit does not have any formal bearing on how the court might rule in the state's appeal — though it could indicate that the three-judge panel assigned to the case is inclined to allow marriage equality to proceed in Florida, even as the appeals process plays out. That's currently the legal situation in Idaho, Alaska, and Kansas, where Republican leadership in each state is appealing pro-equality decisions, even while courts refuse to place those decisions on hold, allowing same-sex couples to legally marry in those states.
"We are thrilled that the 11th Circuit has denied the state's request to delay marriages in Florida," said Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, in a statement Wednesday. "Every day of delay is another day of harm experienced by thousands of loving and committed same-sex couples in Florida. Now it's time to break out the wedding bells. Florida is ready for the freedom to marry!"