News (USA)

N.M. state Supreme Court prepares to hear same-sex marriage case

SANTA FE, N.M. — Linda Siegle and her partner of 22 years were first in line when the Santa Fe County clerk started to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in late August.

Now, she’s waiting to see whether the New Mexico Supreme Court will legalize gay marriage in all of the state’s 33 counties. Eight counties currently allow it.

Eddie Moore, Albuquerque Journal/AP
Santa County Commissioner Liz Stefonics (left) and Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, after they were married in Santa Fe, N.M. on August 23, 2013.

The five-member high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments next Wednesday in a case that could resolve an issue that’s historically stalled in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. New Mexico law doesn’t explicitly authorize or prohibit gay marriage, but lawmakers have refused to ban it or allow for domestic partnerships.

The court agreed to take the case after New Mexico’s county clerks asked the justices to clarify the law and decide whether a decision by a state district judge in Albuquerque was correct. That judge ruled in a lawsuit against two counties that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The Supreme Court’s decision would apply statewide.

The justices could rule immediately or take the case under consideration and issue a decision later.

“As of today, we all believe that we are officially and legally married and eligible for all of those federal benefits and responsibilities,” said Siegle, a lobbyist in Santa Fe for Equality New Mexico, a gay rights group. Legal marriage entitles gay couples to benefits like joint tax-filing status and Social Security survivor benefits.

Gay marriage became a hot-button issue two months ago when the Dona Ana County clerk decided independently to grant marriage licenses to gay couples. Seven other counties followed. Some took the step voluntarily and some, such as Santa Fe County, faced court orders after same-sex couples who had been denied marriage licenses filed lawsuits. More than 1,000 licenses have been issued so far.

“This case obviously is part of a tremendous national momentum that is continuing to grow,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is representing some of the same-sex couples involved in the New Mexico case.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia allow for same-sex marriage either through court rulings, legislation or voter referendums. A legal fight is also underway in New Jersey after a lower court ruled that gay marriage was legal.

In New Mexico, the law isn’t explicit on gay marriage. But nearly two dozen current and former legislators told the high court in written arguments that state law bans it. The group is made up of Republicans and former Democratic House Speaker Gene Samberson. They point out that state statutes contain a marriage license application with sections for male and female applicants and that there are other provisions in law referring to “husband” and “wife.”

One of those former legislators, Albuquerque lawyer Paul Becht , said the case will challenge the high court because it’s “composed essentially of social liberals.”

“So the question here then is the Supreme Court going to impose its will, notwithstanding the will of the Legislature, or not,” Becht said.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and others say the state Constitution’s equal protection guarantees should guide the high court.

“New Mexico law already strongly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and generally requires equal treatment of same-sex couples and their families,” Minter said. “So it is the next logical stop to hold that, yes, it also requires full equality when it comes to marriage.”

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