Judge could rule this week in challenge to South Carolina gay marriage ban

Colleen Condon, left, and Nichols Bleckley are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging South Carolina's gay marriage ban. Bruce Smith, AP

Colleen Condon, left, and her partner Nichols Bleckley appear at a news conference in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014, shortly after filing a federal lawsuit seeking the right to marry in South Carolina.Bruce Smith, AP

Colleen Condon, left, and her partner Nichols Bleckley appear at a news conference in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014, shortly after filing a federal lawsuit seeking the right to marry in South Carolina.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A federal judge in Charleston could rule as early as Wednesday in a challenge to South Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban.

The State reports that U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has signaled that he likely will rule that the U.S. Constitution trumps the state constitution and nullify a state Supreme Court order that currently bars a Charleston probate judge from issuing a marriage license to two women who want to get married.

In a little-noticed public hearing late last month, Gergel indicated to attorneys for state Attorney General Alan Wilson and Gov. Nikki Haley – who are fighting to deny South Carolina same-sex couples the same rights that heterosexual couples have to get married – that he would quickly overturn South Carolina’s ban on gay marriage.

During that Oct. 24 hearing, Emory Smith, an attorney in the attorney general’s office, begged Gergel to let the attorney general have just three more days to file some legal papers to stop a possible marriage between Colleen Condon and Anne Bleckley, both of Charleston County.

Gergel said no. The hearing lasted just 15 minutes.

“Let me tell you my view, Mr. Smith, ” Gergel said, according to a public transcript of the hearing, “The plaintiffs in this case have asserted an irreparable injury. They assert their marriage was stopped by action of the defendants … and I believe they’re entitled to an expeditious review.”

Filings in the case are due by Noon EST on Wednesday, and Gergel could rule anytime after that.

South Carolina Equality and Lambda Legal filed the lawsuit on behalf of Condon and Bleckley on October 15, arguing that South Carolina is obligated to allow same-sex couples to marry, consistent with a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit striking down a similar ban in Virginia.

Because South Carolina is also within the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit, the decision in the Virginia case is binding on South Carolina, says Lambda Legal.

Attorneys for Condon and Bleckley have asked Gergel “to enforce the clear and unequivocal law in the Fourth Circuit that government officials must allow same-sex couples the freedom to marry.”

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Gergel’s ruling would be the first ruling by a South Carolina federal judge on same-sex marriage and set the stage for Wilson and Haley to either drop their opposition or file appeals.

Late Monday, Haley and Wilson filed a 57-page brief urging Gergel to support a state government’s right to deny marriage to same-sex couples. Haley and Wilson have vowed to defend the ban, and indicated in their brief they are prepared to try to get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals from five states seeking reviews of rulings that overturned same-sex marriage ban, including the Fourth Circuit ruling in Virginia. The action led to the fall of bans in more than a dozen states.

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