The Alabama Supreme Court fired a shot across the bow of the U.S. Supreme Court, defiantly challenging that court’s earlier decision to let same-sex marriages proceed in the state. The Tuesday opinion ordered probate judges in that state to stop issuing marriage licenses, setting up a rare legal showdown that pits state power against federal, leaving hopeful couples in a giant legal limbo and state probate judges scratching their heads at the competing directives.
The ruling effectively undoes a federal district court ruling, reviewed and passed on by both the 11th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court, that had ordered state probate judges to issue same-sex marriage licenses. But whether the Alabama Supreme Court has the authority to deem itself the arbiter of the U.S. Constitution, when the federal courts already have weighed in, remains to be seen.
Many legal experts were baffled by the ruling. Professor Ronald Krotoszynski, who
teaches constitutional law at the University of Alabama, went as far as to suggest that the State Supreme Court was lobbying conservatives on the High Court to end same-sex marriage in their upcoming ruling. “You might read it as kind of a brief or a political document to the Supreme Court of the United States,” Krotozynski said.
The 7-to-1 decision pulled no punches on the merits of the question of same-sex marriage: “Alabama law allows for ‘marriage’ between only one man and one woman.” Contrary to nearly all rulings across the nation, it went on to find that the state’s interest in promoting childbirth through marriage was highly rational: “Government has an obvious interest in offspring and the consequences that flow from the creation of each new generation, which is only naturally possible in the opposite-sex relationship, which is the primary reason marriage between men and women is sanctioned by state law,” the decision declared. Further, it found that marriage between a man and a woman “provides the optimum environment for defining the responsibilities of parents and for raising children to become productive members of society.” These ran completely contrary to the factual findings of the federal district court.
In an even potentially farther reaching statement, recalling Alabama’s prior battles on questions such as federally ordered desegregation, the decision also declared that the Alabama State Supreme Court was free to “interpret the United States Constitution independently from, and even contrary to, federal courts.”
The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington based LGBT advocacy group, countered swiftly. “The Alabama State Supreme Court does not have the authority to interfere with a federal court order,” said Sarah Warbelow, the group’s legal director. “This order is outrageous and baffling, and no amount of legalese can hide the bare animus that forms the foundation of this extralegal ruling.”
Justice James Gregory Shaw was the dissenter, questioning the ruling on several procedural grounds and concluding that the court was venturing into uncharted waters “and potentially unsettling established principles of law.”