Friday, May 16, 2014

TOP STORY >> High court stays ruling

Leader staff writer

The Arkansas Supreme Court granted a motion from the attorney general’s office to stay a Pulaski County judge’s ruling that overturned the state ban on same-sex marriage and then ordered county clerks to issue such licenses.

Lonoke County had refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses even as Judge Chris Piazza on Thursday clarified his May 9 ruling to include a third Arkansas statute that was not struck down in his earlier ruling.

The statute prohibited county clerks from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Piazza’s ruling also requires Arkansas to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who were legally wed in other states.

UALR law professor Joshua Silverstein said the granting of a stay shouldn’t have an impact on couples that have been married since the May 9 ruling.

But a stay will stop others from receiving marriage licenses before the attorney general’s appeal of the ruling is heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court, he noted. Silverstein also said, “The Arkansas Supreme Court ruling will extend to everyone” — not just the counties listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

Unless the case is expedited, the high court’s decision to uphold or reverse Piazza’s ruling will probably come late this year or early next year, Silverstein said.

If the ruling is reversed, language in the law makes it unclear whether the marriages of those who wed in the interim will be nullified, he continued. There is language supporting both that outcome and those marriages remaining valid even if the decision is reversed, Silverstein told The Leader.

He also said counties listed in the lawsuit, such as Lonoke, White and Pulaski, were required to issue the licenses after Judge Piazza’s ruling was finalized Thursday afternoon.

Lonoke County Clerk Larry Clarke disagreed. He told the quorum court Thursday night, “I chose, Lonoke County being one of the counties that’s in the lawsuit, that we will continue as current law stands and that is that we will not issue same-sex marriage licenses.

“In my opinion, it would be premature to start issuing these marriage certificates with this (stay and appeal) process taking place. We will do this until further notice, or we come to some conclusion in the courts. Right now, it’s too ambiguous and there’s too much uncertainty in the laws.”

One justice of the peace asked if Clarke had received advice from the county’s attorney but was told that attorney is at an out-of-town trial.

Clarke said he thought issuing licenses Thursday and Friday before the stay and stopping later would put the county in a “worse position” than maintaining the status quo.

He was also asked why Lonoke County was listed in the lawsuit. Clarke said that happened after a same-sex couple came to his office, requested and were denied a marriage license last spring.

White County Clerk Cheryl Evans said around 2:30 p.m. Friday that her office would issue licenses when their system was updated. The update was being worked on when The Leader spoke with her then, according to Evans.

The office was closed when The Leader called at 4:40 p.m. Friday — 10 minutes after the stay was enacted — to ask if any licenses had been issued.

Pulaski County resumed issuing licenses after halting briefly when the Arkansas Supreme Court made it clear on Wednesday that Piazza needed to clarify the order.

On Friday morning, a resolution drafted by state Sen. Jason Rapert (R- Conway) failed. The resolution expressed support for impeaching Piazza and asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to reverse his ruling.

Tyler Pearson, who is running against Rapert for the seat, sent a news release to The Leader stating Rapert claimed that 97 percent of Americans are against gay marriage.

“That is blatantly false. Recent polling shows a majority of Americans approve of gay marriage,” according to the release.

Pearson also said in the release that House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) agreed that the effort to impeach the judge was a “dangerous” precedent by “completely ignoring” the separation of powers.

But many of the lawmakers and candidates The Leader called earlier in the week sided with Rapert on being against gay marriage.

Buddy Fisher, who is running for Walls McCrary’s (D-Lonoke) Dist. 14 seat in the state House of Representatives in Lonoke County, is one of the opponents.

He said, “I believe that God is the one who instituted marriage, and therefore it is God who defines it. God instituted marriage as a man and a woman, and it is not up to man to redefine what God has defined and instituted.”

Silverstein explained why the stay was likely granted. “You don’t want people to get used to living under a new rule when that new rule could be overturned,” he said.

Whichever side loses in the Arkansas Supreme Court will have the right to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the law professor.

But that doesn’t mean the federal court will hear an appeal because justices have discretion there, Silverstein added.

He said the state Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s first appeal for being “premature” and denied his first motion to stay because Piazza’s ruling was “incomplete.”

A few local same-sex couples weighed in on Piazza’s clarification and questioned what comes next before the stay was issued.

Elizabeth Johnson of Cabot said, “We’re not surprised, but we’re extremely happy.”

She and her partner, LaRisa, were married in Iowa in 2009. They’ve been together for 14 years.

The couple returned to Arkansas and realized the marriage wasn’t recognized here.

Johnson said that meant the two of them couldn’t share a health-insurance policy or receive Social Security benefits if a spouse dies and leaves the family in a financial lurch. And her partner can’t do things like take their 12-year-old daughter to the doctor.

Johnson is the biological mother of their child.

“The ruling for us gives us what our neighbors have,” she said. “There are countless things that change our daily lives.”

What it gives them is peace of mind in knowing that, if Johnson died, LaRisa could raise their daughter, Johnson explained.

She said marriage is now a governmental function, something that gives rights and protection worth thousands of dollars. “There’s a lot of money to be had in equality,” Johnson argued, noting that more than 400 same-sex marriage licenses have been issued in Arkansas since the May 9 ruling was issued. Those cost $60 each, she pointed out.

Johnson also disagreed with the religious argument that marriage is between a man and a woman because, to get married today, “You don’t even have to touch a church.”

She continued, “I have to obey the law so the law should treat me equally.”

Johnson added, “We’re not trying to hurt anything.”

But she and LaRisa have been hurt emotionally.

Johnson shared that they have been cursed at in public and a stranger even approached them in Taco Bell one time to say their daughter would be better off dead than being raised by the two of them.

“People can be really ugly,” Johnson said.

She added that her question now is, if she travels to a county that is not listed in the lawsuit, will her marriage still be recognized.

Silverstein said he didn’t know the answer to that question.

Another couple with local roots was the first in the state to wed May 10, the day after Piazza issued his first order.

Former Jacksonville High School cheerleader Jennifer Rambo and Kristin Seaton received a marriage license at the Carroll County Courthouse in Eureka Springs. They live in Fort Smith.

Rambo, who also played softball at Jacksonville High School, was pleased that Piazza immediately clarified his ruling when the Arkansas Supreme Court made it clear that was what he needed to do.

She was also glad that his order had a provision stating clerks who issued licenses before the ruling was finalized would not be penalized.

Rambo said, “The clerk who helped me and Kristin as well as all the other same-sex couples in Carroll County last weekend, she was extremely nice.”

Rambo and Seaton have been together for four years and were planning to hold a wedding ceremony in October. Seaton proposed to Rambo in March.

They didn’t consider marrying in another state because both women wanted to tie the knot in their home state.

When the couple heard about the ruling, “It was like a million bricks were lifted off my shoulders,” Seaton said.

The two arrived in Eureka Springs around 2 a.m. last Saturday and slept in their car until 5:30 a.m.

At 9 a.m., “it became an emotional roller coaster,” Rambo said.

The same-sex couples in line first learned that one clerk would not issue licenses. They were also told that the courthouse would close its doors. But that didn’t happen.

Then, Rambo said, the couples were told to move so that “normal” customers could enter the courthouse.

She said, “Everybody had sad tears and heartbroken tears. I was like ‘are we not normal? who are we? what are we?”’

Then a different clerk agreed to issue the licenses.

Others who were waiting allowed Rambo and Seaton to return to the front of the line. The two had left it to sit in their car during the confusion.

Rambo said, “It melted both of our hearts. We couldn’t believe it.”

When they received the license, she said, “It was the best feeling. So many emotions that I don’t think words can even express.”

The clerk who handed them the license also had tears of joy in her eyes, Rambo added.

She said the marriage license is a huge deal for the two of them because they plan to start a family and both moms want to be on their children’s birth certificates.

“Each and every one of us deserve that legal right to be able to not have to sit there and fight for our families to be taken care of,” Rambo said.

She pointed out that several couples who were in line at the courthouse with them have been together for 50 years or more.

Those couples, Rambo said, were happy to know that when one of them passes away the other would receive Social Security benefits and life insurance money that would help surviving partners support themselves financially.

Seaton also said, despite the outcry in support of the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, “I think a lot more people in Arkansas are opening their minds and hearts.”

Rambo added that people all over the world have congratulated them on the marriage.

She hopes that being the face of this controversy in Arkansas may encourage those who are struggling with coming out or fighting for equal rights.

Rambo also quoted a Bible verse, Romans 13:10. She said she and Seaton live by it.

The verse reads, “Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Rambo said.