The Arkansas Supreme Court could avoid having to resolve the same-sex marriage debate after justices decided a separate case is needed before they can hear it - a move that will likely push the consideration until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the same topic.
The state Supreme Court on Thursday ruled a new case is needed to decide whether Justice Rhonda Wood, who was sworn in in January, after the other justices heard arguments in the case, should help decide whether gay marriage is legal in Arkansas.
More than 500 same-sex couples married in Arkansas after a Pulaski County judge ruled in May that the ban violated the U.S. and state constitutions. The state appealed, and justices in November heard oral arguments on the case, which they then agreed to expedite.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked the court for a new hearing after Wood and Robin Wynne were sworn in earlier this year. But the state Supreme Court, which was not responding directly to Rutledge's filing, singled out only Wood, who replaced a judge who had recused himself during November arguments.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in April and have a decision by late June. If the high court rules same-sex couples can marry, the unions can likely resume and state justices would have clear federal direction. Otherwise, the Arkansas justices will decide on the state's ban.
The state Supreme Court has given the attorney general's office and lawyers for same-sex couples 10 days to file briefs for the new case. The justices can consider the second case at their leisure, meaning it's unlikely they can rule on that case and return to and wrap up the original before the U.S. Supreme Court makes a decision in June.
Wood recused herself from the new case later Thursday.
Cheryl Maples, an attorney for the same-sex couples, disapproved of the delay.
"Since the Supreme Court found reason to expedite the case, I had hoped they would follow through with that and am very disappointed that they're pushing this off," Maples said.
She said her clients are still being denied access to health care and other benefits.
"If a constitutional right is denied to you, you are being damaged every single day," Maples said. "We filed this lawsuit nearly two years ago."
Rutledge's spokesman Judd Deere said only, "The Attorney General will file a brief setting forth the state's position within 10 days, as directed by the court."