Appeals court to hear South Dakota, Arkansas, Missouri gay marriage cases

In this May12, 2014, file photo, couples line up to file paperwork for marriage licenses at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., on May 12, 2014, after the state's largest county began issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples.Danny Johnston, AP

In this May12, 2014, file photo, couples line up to file paperwork for marriage licenses at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., on May 12, 2014, after the state’s largest county began issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A federal appeals court will consider the gay marriage bans of South Dakota, Arkansas and Missouri in a sped-up process that positions itself to weigh in before an expected U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could settle whether same-sex couples can marry nationwide.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request Tuesday to consider cases from the states at an expedited pace, saying it would consolidate arguments from all three and would hear oral arguments the week of May 11 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Jennie and Nancy Rosenbrahn outside of the Pennington County Courthouse in Rapid City, S.D. The couple wed on Saturday, April 26, 2014, in Minnesota, and were the first South Dakota residents to legally challenge the state's ban on same-sex marriage and its refusal to recognize such nuptials. Benjamin Brayfield, Rapid City Journal (AP)

Jennie and Nancy Rosenbrahn outside of the Pennington County Courthouse in Rapid City, S.D. The couple wed on Saturday, April 26, 2014, in Minnesota, and were the first South Dakota residents to legally challenge the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

That came as a surprise, given that the U.S. Supreme Court had already said in January it would hear arguments on gay marriage in April, with a ruling expected by late June.

The move makes the conservative-leaning 8th Circuit the final federal appellate court to take action on the issue of same-sex marriage. It likely decided to weigh in for several reasons, said South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, who had filed a joint motion Monday with the attorney for the six same-sex couples in the state asking the appeals court to expedite the process.

Jackley said the court may want to signal to the U.S. Supreme Court how it thinks the high court should rule, and give it a better sense of where the appellate courts stand.

The Republican attorney general also said the court needs to have a ruling on the record in the event that U.S. Supreme Court narrowly draws its decision and fails to address all the issues that could arise regarding same-sex marriages. He cited the court’s narrow decision on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 in California in 2013.

“So to the extent that the Supreme Court doesn’t fully answer of all the questions,” Jackley said, “however the 8th Circuit rules in the Missouri, South Dakota and Arkansas cases will be the law of the land, so to speak (in the 8th Circuit).”

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The Supreme Court plans to take up gay-rights cases that ask it to overturn bans in four states and declare for the entire nation that people can marry the partners of their choice, regardless of gender.

The court chose not to decide this issue in 2013, even as it struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law – paving the way for a wave of lower court rulings across the country in favor of same-sex marriage rights.

It is unusual for a lower appeals court to consider a case that’s already set for arguments before the highest court in the land, said Michael Gans, clerk of court for the 8th Circuit. Even before the arguments are heard in Omaha, he said, the Supreme Court could issue an order putting them on hold.

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