JACKSON — A federal judge heard five hours of arguments Wednesday about whether to overturn Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage, and he pressed attorneys to say whether the state’s interests outweigh those of gay or lesbian couples who want the same legal rights as straight couples.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves said that in addition to the oral and written arguments, he will consider the reasoning that federal judges in other states have used in ruling on dozens of cases in recent years. Gay marriage is now legal in 33 states, with Kansas the latest.
“The court will rule as soon as possible,” Reeves said, without indicating when that would be.
Attorneys for both sides agreed that Reeves’ ruling will be appealed, no matter what it is.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, is one of the few federal appeals courts that has not yet ruled on challenges to states’ bans on same-sex marriage. A 5th Circuit panel is scheduled to hear arguments in January from one case in which a judge upheld the Louisiana ban and another case in which a judge struck down the Texas ban but put the ruling on hold.
Mississippi has a 1997 law that bans same-sex marriage and a 2004 voter-approved constitutional amendment that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Roberta Kaplan, an attorney for two lesbian couples and a gay-rights group that sued the state, argued Wednesday that gay and lesbian Mississippians deserve the dignity of equal treatment under the law. She said that without being married, same-sex couples in long-term relationships might not be allowed to make important medical decisions for each other, for example.
“Marriage matters the most when bad stuff happens,” said Kaplan, the New York attorney who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court last year to strike down part of the federal ban on gay marriage.
She said the lawsuit does not ask churches or other religious institutions to change their marriage practices.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood submitted written arguments on Monday, asking Reeves to uphold Mississippi’s definition of marriage.
Neither Bryant nor Hood was in court Wednesday. They were represented by two attorneys from Hood’s office. One of them, Justin Matheny, argued that the state should be able to set its own marriage laws. He suggested Reeves should wait and see the outcome of challenges to other states’ marriage laws.
“Doesn’t the court have some responsibility to not wait and see?” Reeves responded.
The other state attorney, Paul Barnes, made a pre-emptive request: He asked Reeves to temporarily block same-sex couples from marrying, if Reeves sides with the plaintiffs. Barnes said that would allow the state to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples during an appeal.
Circuit clerks issue marriage licenses in Mississippi, and one of the defendants in the lawsuit is Hinds County Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn. Her attorney, Pieter Teeuwissen, asked Reeves to make sure Dunn is treated the same as the other 81 circuit clerks, if the judge lifts the ban. Teeuwissen expressed concern about the possibility of a run on Dunn’s office for marriage licenses. He said Mississippi law allows a resident of any part of the state to apply for a marriage license in any county; people are not limited to the county of their residence.
As a cold front Wednesday blasted Jackson with its chilliest temperatures in months, Teeuwissen joked to Reeves that if someone had told him “a court in Mississippi would seriously consider same-sex marriage, it would be a cold day….” He didn’t finish the cliche, but Reeves picked up on the joke.
“It’s supposed to be even colder tomorrow,” the judge responded.
That prompted laughter from about 80 spectators in the packed courtroom, most of whom were gay or lesbian couples or their supporters.