The Supreme Court doled out a landmark victory on Monday, October 6 for gay marriage supporters by rejecting appeals cases from five states—Virginia (4th Cir.), Oklahoma (10th Cir.), Utah (10th Cir.), Wisconsin (7th Cir.), and Indiana (7th Cir.). The move surprised many observers of the court and left the public speculating about the reasons behind the cert denial. A few important questions stand out:

What were the immediate effects of the decision?*

The move allowed same-sex marriages to proceed in those five states as soon as the circuits put their respective rulings into effect. Gay and lesbian couples in the Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin, and Indiana were able to marry almost immediately.

What could happen as a result of the decision?*

Other states in the 4th Circuit (NC, SC, and WV) and 10th Circuit (CO, KS, WY) could soon follow. Same-sex marriage cases pending before the 5th, 6th, 9th, and 11th Circuits could also see movement soon. Indeed, the 9th Circuit on Tuesday ruled that same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada are unconstitutional. However, early Wednesday morning, Idaho state officials filed an emergency request for an immediate stay on same-sex marriages. Justice Kennedy issued an order granting the request and applying the stay to Idaho and Nevada. However, that same day, Kennedy narrowed the stay to apply only to Idaho cases.

Why not decide the issue now?

Although the Court’s decision to decline to rule was a boon for gay marriage supporters, many questioned why the Court punted on such an important issue. The technical reason backing the Court’s move is that there was no conflict among the circuits below, meaning the Court did not have much to add in the face of unanimity. But, ideologically speaking, perhaps the Court did not care to “fan[] the flames of controversy” as it did with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.  In Roe v. Wade, some believed that the court should not have unilaterally decided the legality of abortion and instead should have left such an important political issue up to the states.

The Washington Post features a 2009 quote from Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar and gay marriage supporter, describing the potential aftermath of a decision from the Court allowing same-sex marriage nationwide:

“[S]o abrupt and heavy-handed a means would undermine the desired end by fomenting a fierce backlash and making gay marriage a bone of national political contention for decades to come — if it did not produce a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage for good.”

Suzanne Goldberg, guest writer at SCOTUSblog, cheers for the newfound marriage equality in many states, but also points out that the decision “brings no end to the suffering of same-sex couples who live in places where they are prevented from marrying or having their marriages recognized.”

Will the Court ever take on gay marriage?

Possibly. If the 5th Circuit “upholds same-sex marriage bans in Texas and Louisiana later this year, becoming the first appeals court to do so, the Supremes will have a harder time staying on the sidelines,” and could hear a case in the spring. In the meantime, the number of states allowing gay marriage could exceed thirty, a definite victory for same-sex couples in those states. Advocates hope the states on the sidelines will soon follow suit.



*N.B.: This post is current as of Friday, October 10, 2014 at 4:00pm. The Washington Post has a handy map showing up-to-date status of status of same-sex marriage in each state.

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