UPDATE, Friday, October 17, 2014: U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl issued an order “granting preliminary injunction and temporary stay” this afternoon, striking down Wyoming’s ban on same-sex marriage. Click to read the judge’s order.
U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl will decide by 5 p.m. Monday whether same-sex couples in Wyoming can marry when he rules on a motion for temporary injunction.
The hearing on the motion is part of the larger case Guzzo v. Mead which questions whether 10th Circuit rulings overturning bans on same sex-marriage apply to Wyoming, where a state statute defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Gov. Matt Mead’s administration has vowed to defend the statute despite the 10th Circuit rulings.
The hearing began at 10 a.m. Thursday, in Casper, before a packed courtroom of about 80 people, and lasted for a little more than an hour. None of the same-sex couples who are plaintiffs in the case was called to testify.
Despite pleas from plaintiffs’ attorneys and counsel representing Laramie County Clerk Debra Lathrop to issue an immediate ruling, Judge Skavdahl declined. He noted the extreme significance of his decision and said that he wanted to get the legal ruling “right.”
After the hearing, Jeran Artery of Wyoming Equality said that although he and other same-sex marriage proponents had hoped for a ruling in their favor from the bench today, he was pleased with the plaintiff’s arguments and the judge’s line of questioning.
“I don’t think it could have gone any better than it did,” Artery told WyoFile. “The next few days will go at a snail’s pace because we’re so eager to hear.”
Evidence and arguments
Attorneys for the state conceded that Wyoming is bound by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned state-level bans on gay marriages. They said they believe the 10th Circuit “got it wrong,” though, and they want Guzzo v. Mead to be heard without injunctive relief even though they anticipate the plaintiffs will prevail.
Jared Crecelius, a senior assistant attorney general for the state, said the state’s goal is to take an appeal to the 10th Circuit and ask for a full panel review rather than a 3-judge panel, as presided over the other states’ cases.
Crecelius added it would be “a bit hasty” to grant injunctive relief and wipe away a state statute that is “the long-standing, deep-rooted” law.
Crecelius said the motion for injunctive relief is “an unordinary request” because it would immediately result in the issuance of marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Legal matters relating to those marriages — child custody, estate planning, etc., — would create complications if the state of Wyoming is ultimately successful in its effort to undo same-sex marriage in federal courts.
He indicated the state is prepared to take its defense of Wyoming’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman to the 10th Circuit and possibly to the Supreme Court of the United States. The state believes that the dissenting opinion in one of those 10th Circuit decisions — Kitchen v. Herbert — will eventually prevail in a full court of appeals or in the Supreme Court.
Judge Skavdahl asked the state’s attorneys whether they have identified any distinctions between Wyoming’s pending case and the state-level same-sex marriage bans that have been turned over by the 10th Circuit. Crecelius said the state has not been able to find a distinction yet, but it needs more time to research the matter. Skavdahl pointed out that the state has had at least since June, when the 10th Circuit ruled Utah’s ban as unconstitutional.
Tom Stoever Jr., and attorney for the plaintiffs, said marriage is a basic human right and a marriage license should not be denied based solely on gender. By not recognizing same-sex marriages and by denying same-sex couples the right to marry in Wyoming, gay and lesbian couples are unable to make decisions about the spouse’s estate and be included on a spouse’s insurance plan, among many other critical matters.
“They are at the mercy of people outside of their relationships on matters that affect their relationship,” Stoever told the judge. He added that gay couples in Wyoming must constantly confront the fact that Wyoming does not offer them the dignity of recognizing their marriage — a dignity that many married couples take for granted.
“Dignity and respect is something that’s beyond the powers of this court,” Judge Skavdahl told Stoever.
The only witness called to testify in Thursday’s hearing was Laramie County Clerk Debra Lathrop, who testified via video from Cheyenne.
Lathrop said the state’s position that the 10th Circuit rulings don’t apply to Wyoming’s statute has forced her to deny marriage licenses for several same-sex couples who have requested one in the past two weeks. Counsel representing the Laramie County Clerk said that puts Lathrop, and all county clerks in Wyoming, in the precarious position of being accused of perjury for not upholding their oath of office. The oath requires them to uphold both the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution.
After the hearing, Robert Johnston, one of the plaintiffs, said he was encouraged by Judge Skavdahl’s line of questioning to both the plaintiffs and defendants. Johnston said he and the other six plaintiffs had submitted lengthy written testimony, which the court accepted. “The fact that we weren’t required to testify indicated to me that the judge was familiar with all of that material.”
The Equality State
Organizers estimate that more than 100 people turned out in support of a marriage equality rally held in downtown Casper on Wednesday. Many attendees spoke of a sense that history is about to be made in Wyoming, feeling that the legalization of same-sex marriage is inevitable.
“I want to be a part of this. I’m not going to miss out on the day my state might become, actually, the Equality State,” said Marcus Frye, a gay University of Wyoming student. Frye said he drove from Laramie to attend the rally because his class schedule prevented him from attending the U.S. District Court hearing on Thursday.
“At the beginning of last week when people were thinking it’s (same-sex marriage) already legal in Wyoming, that was just surreal for me because I honestly didn’t expect it to be this fast,” said Frye. “If I ever find the person I want to marry I (might not) have to go through any legal obstacles, and that’s awesome.”
Jeran Artery of Wyoming Equality, one of the organizers of the rally, said he’s amazed at how much progress proponents of gay and lesbian rights have made in Wyoming.
“I can’t believe how five years ago I was up at the legislature testifying against what I would call really ugly anti-gay bills. You know, DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), ‘let’s put it in the constitution,’” said Artery. “I feel like we’ve swung the pendulum in the right direction, and it’s just, it’s a fun time to just be a part of this movement. It’s super exciting.”
Robert Johnston and Carl Oleson were married in Canada, but the state of Wyoming hasn’t recognized their marriage. The couple are among the plaintiffs in the case against the state.
Oleson said it is insulting that the state doesn’t recognize his and Johnston’s marriage. “We work hard in terms of being true to one another, and also I think setting an example, and to me I think that’s what this case is about.” Oleson added, “It’s not so much about us, but the kids who follow us; that they be able to have the same rights and responsibilities as all of us; that they don’t have to go through what we’ve been through to get here.”
— WyoFile reporter Gregory Nickerson contributed to this story.
For background, read these WyoFile reports:
— Wyoming’s stalemate on same-sex marriage may break this week, Oct. 14, 2014
— Wyoming same-sex marriage case rests on state constitution, April 8, 2014.
— Bills aimed at LGBT equality fail, yet proponents see progress, urge civility, Jan. 29, 2013.