Iowa Supreme Court to Hear Arguments in Same-Sex Marriage Case

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday on a same-sex marriage case that challenges whether Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act enacted in 1998 is constitutional.  The case specifically challenges whether a ban on same-sex marriage violates the Iowa constitution’s “equal protection” clause (Article 1, Section 6) and “due process” clause (Article 1, Section 9).  Decisions from Iowa’s high court usually come two to six months after oral arguments.  

The case, Varnum v. Brien, was filed by Lambda Legal in 2005.  The plaintiffs in the case are a group of same-sex couples who tried to get marriage licenses in Polk County in late 2005 or early 2006, including Kate Varnum and her partner Trish, who has legally changed her last name to Varnum also.  The defendant in the case is Timothy J. Brien, the Polk County Recorder who refused to issue marriage licenses to the couples.  Brien informed the couples he could not issue marriage licenses to them by state law, citing the Defense of Marriage Act (Iowa Code, Section 595.2).

An Iowa District Court Judge, Robert Hanson, ruled on the case in August 2007 that Iowa’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional.  Gay couples had a few hours on Aug 31, 2007 to obtain marriage licenses before Judge Hanson stayed his ruling, pending a ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court. A PDF with Hanson’s ruling is available here.  It concludes with:

The Court concludes that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that Plaintiffs are entitled to judgement as a matter of law but Defendant is not.  Because 595.2(1) violates Plaintiffs’ due process and equal protection rights for the aforementioned reasons including, but not limited to, the absence of a rational relationship to the achievement of any legitimate governmental interest, the Court concludes it is unconstitutional and invalid.  Couples, such as Plaintiffs, who are otherwise qualified to marry one another may not be denied licenses to marry or certificates of marriage or in any other way prevented from entering into a civil marriage pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 595 by reason of the fact that both persons comprising such a couple are of the same sex.

(emphasis mine)

I’m not a legal expert, but it would seem the Iowa Supreme Court would have to address the lack of a rational basis for Iowa’s DOMA cited by Hanson in order to overturn his ruling, in addition to the constitutional arguments of equal protection and due process.  I would appreciate any legal views someone can offer on the significance of the “rational basis” argument.  The Iowa Supreme Court consists of seven justices, two that were appointed by Republican governor Terry Branstad, and five appointed by Democratic governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver.  I’m not familiar with any previous rulings by these justices that indicate how this case might be decided.

Iowa only has a state law prohibiting same-sex marriage — it does not have a constitutional amendment.  If the court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, a movement will certainly mobilize to amend the constitution similar to what other states have passed.  But Iowa’s process to amend the constitution can be a lengthy one:

Amendments need to be approved by simple majorities in both the House and Senate in two consecutive general assemblies, then must be approved by a simple majority of voters in the next general election. Each general assembly lasts for two years. This year is the second year of the current general assembly. That means if an amendment is approved this year and in the 2009 or 2010 legislative session, it can be on the general election ballot in November 2010. If lawmakers wait until 2009 to start the amendment process, the earliest that a proposed amendment could reach voters is November 2012.

I can predict one thing with reasonable confidence.  If the court allows same-sex marriage in Iowa, potential Republican presidential candidates will fall all over themselves expressing their outrage in an effort to set themselves up for the 2012 Iowa caucuses.  There will be immediate calls for a constitutional amendment.  Immediately after Hanson’s ruling, the Iowa House Minority Leader, Republican Christopher Rants, said:

The over-stepping and stunning action taken by this court today proves that work on a Constitutional marriage amendment must begin immediately.

(I admit one reason I included this quote is that the guy’s name is “Rants”)

Democrats do control both the Iowa House (by a 53-47 margin) and the Iowa Senate (by a 30-20 margin), along with having a Democratic governor in Chet Culver.  Culver, however, had a very disappointing response to Hanson’s 2007 ruling when it was issued:  

While some Iowans may disagree on this issue, I personally believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I also believe in the rule of law and respect for the judicial process. I have not had the opportunity to review today’s opinion from the Polk County District Court. I understand this ruling is one step that is subject to appeal, up to and including the Supreme Court. I will continue to follow this matter closely as it continues through the judicial system before determining whether any additional legislative actions are appropriate or necessary.

Pressure for a constitutional amendment will be intense if the court rules in favor of same-sex marriages, and would likely continue even if the court rules against same-sex marriages.  Iowa Democrats in the legislature should have the numbers to stop it.  We’ll probably find out sometime in 2009 whether they have the backbone.


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  1. and thanks for reading.

    Iowa law is on the side of gay marriage.  But Iowa politics?  I’m not sure.  

  2. You & the Dog seem to have covered the basics.  I would only add that, as hilarious as it is, that ending from “Prop 8: The Musical” is also very very true: Gays from all over will travel to a state that lets them get legally married.  Will Iowa City be the next gay mecca?  Or tourist destination?

  3. A live stream of the hearing is available here and will start in a few minutes (10:00 AM Central).

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