TV & Radio
U.S. Court Passes on Marriage Lawsuit
Federal judges say the two Orange County men should wait for state courts to sort out issues.
By Sara Lin, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 6, 2006
A federal appeals court on Friday ruled it was premature for a gay Orange County couple to file a lawsuit challenging laws that deny gays and lesbians the right to be married and that the issue should be hashed out in state courts first.
After the Orange County clerk-recorder twice denied Arthur Smelt and Christopher Hammer of Mission Viejo a marriage license, the couple sued in 2004, claiming that state and federal laws recognizing unions only between a man and a woman are unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that the case touched on a topic "fraught with sensitive social policy considerations," but ruled that the couple should wait for the state courts to sort out the issues. A state appeals court is awaiting arguments on a lawsuit challenging the state law that outlaws same-sex marriage.
The outcome of the state litigation could preclude federal courts from weighing in, wrote Appellate Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez.
Legal experts said it was clear the panel wanted to avoid ruling on the issue.
The judges also found the men, both 46, did not have legal standing to challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act because they were never married. The act allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from another state.
Hammer said the judges' reasoning "sounded an awful lot like the doublespeak in George Orwell's '1984.' If we were married, why would we be in court complaining about not being able to get married?"
The case has caused a rift in the same-sex marriage movement, with the major civil rights groups concerned that the suit could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that state laws banning same-sex marriages are constitutional.
Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization promoting gay and lesbian rights, was relieved by Friday's ruling. "It recognizes that some of these important questions remain for a future day in an appropriate case," she said.
Richard C. Gilbert, a Santa Ana lawyer representing Smelt and Hammer, said they probably would appeal to the Supreme Court. "We've said from the beginning that the only thing that's ever going to matter is what the U.S. Supreme Court has to say," he said.
Court passes up chance for gay marriage ruling
By Dan Whitcomb
Fri May 5, 6:27 PM ET
A U.S. appeals court on Friday skirted the incendiary issue of whether same-sex marriage could be barred under the Constitution, ruling a gay couple had no legal right to challenge such laws.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the two California men, who sued in 2004 after they were denied a marriage license in Orange County, should wait for California courts to rule on a state law that bans gay marriage.
California voters in 2000 endorsed a ballot measure defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, in upholding a lower-court ruling, ruled that Arthur Smelt and Christopher Hammer lacked standing to sue over the laws in part because they have not sought federal benefits of marriage.
National gay rights activists had urged the couple to drop the lawsuit because they prefer to fight for same-sex marriage on a state level.
The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit is considered one of the most liberal and activist appeals courts in the country.
Only Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, allows same-sex couples to wed. But gay activists were seeking similar rights in California and New York, among other states.
Gay marriage was a central issue in the 2004 presidential race, and it is expected to resurface in 2008.
"It is difficult to imagine an area more fraught with sensitive social policy considerations in which federal courts should not involve themselves if there is an alternative," 9th Circuit justice Ferdinand Fernandez wrote for the court in the 24-page opinion.
Smelt and Hammer had challenged the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and limits federal marriage benefits to traditional married couples -- a man and a woman.
They argued that the law, which also says that states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages from elsewhere, violated their constitutional rights, including equal protection, due process and privacy.
An attorney for Smelt and Hammer, who could appeal the 9th Circuit's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, could not be reached for comment.