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Supreme Court to consider whether all states must recognize same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states, so should gay couples be allowed to marry nationwide? Having considered aspects of the debate before, the Supreme Court will consider that question directly this spring. Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins Judy Woodruff to look back at past rulings explain the timing behind the move.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    While aspects of same-sex marriage have been debated at the U.S. Supreme Court, today, the nine justices agreed to hear arguments at the heart of the debate. Should gay couples be allowed to marry nationwide? They will consider cases stemming from four states. The arguments will be heard in April and a decision announced in June.

    For more on the court's move, NewsHour contributor Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," joins us.

    Marcia, a big day.

  • MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal:

    Hi, Judy.

    Absolutely.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So we know gay marriage is now legal in 36 states. What's the significance of the court taking up these cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, as you probably remember, last October, the court had seven cases and it declined to review those cases.

    The big difference between October and today is the fact that, in November, a lower federal appellate court broke with the trend across the lower federal appellate courts and upheld state bans on marriage by gay and lesbian couples, as well as bans on the recognition of legal out-of-state same-sex marriages.

    So that created a circuit split, which is one of the key criterion — criteria for granting review by the Supreme Court.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So that was a couple of months ago. Any sense of what — I mean, other than the fact it is a split, any sense of why the court would jump on this and say, all right, we're now ready to look at this?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, I think they were waiting for the right cases to get to them, but I really do think the circuit split was something very important for them, because the Supreme Court wants to ensure uniformity of federal law, uniform application of the federal Constitution.

    And here you had the Sixth Circuit saying in four states these bans were OK, but you had all these other circuits saying they're not OK.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So what is the main question they're going to be wrestling with?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    The justices actually fashioned two questions.

    Even though they took four cases, they're not going to hear four separate arguments. They consolidated those cases, and there will be a decision on two questions that they told the lawyers in the cases to brief and be prepared to argue. First, does the 14th Amendment require states to license marriages by same-sex couples? And, second, does the 14th Amendment require states to recognize same-sex couples who are legally married out of state?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, do previous rulings by this court tell you, tell us very much about how they're likely to go on this next question?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, it's hard to say, Judy.

    We know that, in 2013, the court took up the definition of marriage in the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and that definition said marriage was between one man and one woman, and the court, in a 5-4 decision, struck the definition as it is applied to legally married same-sex couples. So the court was divided there.

    But the majority opinion had two very important strands, equal protection and federalism, that marriage had always been the province of the states to regulate. So it's going to be very interesting. What the court's dealing with today are state laws, not the federal law, and we will just have to wait and see how they view the role of the states here today in this type of issue.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, I know it's always dangerous to speculate.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But I was reading today the sense is that it's clear how some of the justices are going to go one way or another, but it's not at all clear how some in the middle will go.

    Who are you watching more than anyone else?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    OK.

    I think I am going to be watching Justice Kennedy, as always, although he wrote the 2013 majority opinion in the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and he's been very strong in prior cases involving gay rights under the Constitution.

    But I'm also going to watch, I think, the chief justice to see what he does. His dissent in that 2013 case focused on the federalism aspects. But I'm not sure, you know, where he really stands here and what's going to go through his mind in terms of the fact that this is one of the most important social civil rights issues of our time.

    And I think he's going to be very conscious of that, conscious of the fact that 36 states now allow same-sex marriages, and conscious of the court and its standing as an institution in society, as well as that he has a lot of integrity, I believe, in terms of how he views the Constitution.

    So I think he's going to be a very interesting figure to watch in this. I think Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito are leaning against same-sex marriages, based on what they wrote in that 2013 case.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, this one is one we're all going to be — I know you are going to be at the court and watching.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    It raises the stakes. And they already had a potentially major case on the docket, the challenge to the Affordable Care Act. So, it's…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, this is the second really big one.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    This is the second really big one, yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This year.

    Marcia Coyle, we thank you. We will see you in April, but certainly before that too.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    You will. My pleasure, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Thanks.

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