Colorado Gay Couples Wed But On Shaky Legal Ground
DENVER -- Technically, their state still does not recognize gay marriages. But that hasn't stopped hundreds of gay Coloradans from getting marriage licenses from two county clerks who argue they still have the legal right to provide them to loving couples.
A judge ruled Thursday the clerk in the liberal college town of Boulder can continue issuing the licenses. That spurred a second clerk in Denver to open her doors to gay couples and a third in the southern Colorado city of Pueblo to announce gay couples can wed there starting Friday morning.
More than 100 couples have married in Boulder County since its clerk started issuing licenses two weeks ago, after the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Utah's gay marriage ban unconstitutional.
The ruling became law in Colorado and the five other states in the 10th Circuit. But the panel immediately put the decision on hold while Utah appeals it to the U.S. Supreme Court - meaning Colorado's ban is still state law.
District Court Judge Andrew Hartman noted Colorado's 2006 voter-approved ban is just "hanging on by a thread," especially after another judge found it unconstitutional the day before but stayed that ruling as well.
Hartman found the marriage licenses weren't hurting anyone and were an acceptable form of civil disobedience. However, he required all couples to be warned their marriage might have no legal value if a court later upholds the state's ban.
His decision left clerks around the state trying to figure out what to do next. Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner said clerks had to balance the risks of issuing licenses that might become invalid with violating people's rights by declining to do so. "It's sort of a rock and a hard place," she said.
Denver County Clerk Debra Johnson, meanwhile, described the news as "awesome" and announced she would grant gay-marriage licenses shortly after Hartman's ruling.
Samantha Getman, 33, and Victoria Quintana, 23, rushed to Denver city hall and received their license shortly after 2 p.m.
"We wanted to come down and get it before someone started taking it away from us again," Getman said as she held up her paperwork in front of a bank of television cameras.
They were followed by Anna and Fran Simon, who share last names because they're already in a state-sanctioned civil union. They brought along their 7-year-old son, Jeremy.
"We feel like this marriage license is valid, and that's how were going to act," said Fran Simon, 45.
Jason Marsden, 42, and Guy Padgett, 36, were happy for the official recognition.
"This is part of the vital records of our community," Marsden said. "It feels like I exist."
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers had sought to block the issuing of licenses, warning of "legal chaos." In a statement Thursday, he pledged to go to the Colorado Supreme Court as soon as possible "to prevent a legal patchwork quilt from forming."
It's unclear what legal weight the licenses will carry or how long they will be valid. But State Sen. Jesse Ulibarri - who married his partner, Louis Trujillo, in Boulder last month - said it's important that gay couples finally can claim the same recognition as straight ones, even if it's fleeting.
In Ulibarri's case, he wanted to get married while his ailing 85-year-old grandmother could witness the union.
"It was an affirmation in front of my family and friends that we love one another and we are committed to one another," he said.
Nancy Leong, a University of Denver law professor, said Hartman's ruling effectively allows government officials to sometimes disobey state law if they believe it violates the nation's founding principles.
"I read his opinion to say a certain level of what we may call civil disobedience is permissible under the U.S. Constitution," Leong said.
In the abstract, she said, it seemed unlikely a judge would permit a government official to do something contrary to state law. But things play out differently in the notoriously liberal city known as "The Berkeley of the Rockies."
"It's Boulder," Leong said.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed Hartman to the bench last year.
On Wednesday, the Utah attorney general's office announced it will go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge the decision by the three-judge 10th Circuit panel.
There is no guarantee the high court will take the case when it returns in October. But situations like the one in Colorado add to the pressure for a final, definitive ruling on gay marriage in the U.S.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, but it's in legal limbo in much of the rest of the nation. Seemingly every week, a new gay marriage ban gets struck down. Sometimes marriages start immediately; other times the rulings are put on hold and nothing happens.
In Colorado, District Judge C. Scott Crabtree on Wednesday became the 16th judge to strike down a state's gay marriage ban in the past year, but he put his ruling on hold pending an appeal.
Crabtree said the provisions in Colorado law clearly violate the state and U.S. constitutions. The ruling will be appealed by Suthers' office, which defended the ban.
But in a statement Thursday, the governor made clear he didn't want Suthers to appeal that ruling. Hickenlooper said he is "a strong advocate for marriage equality."
"The decision on marriage by Judge Crabtree puts Colorado on the right side of history," he said. "I have urged the attorney general not to appeal Judge Crabtree's ruling."