Attorney General Pam Bondi said late Thursday that Florida should stop fighting the gay-marriage battle at the state level and wait until the U.S. Supreme Court settles the issue nationally, once and for all.
“Neither this Court nor the Florida Supreme Court can decide this federal issue with finality,” Bondi wrote to the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal. “The United States Supreme Court, however, ‘has the final word on the United States Constitution.’”
Bondi told the appeals court she expects the U.S. Supreme Court will act soon on the gay marriage issue. She cited filings this week from the states of Utah and Oklahoma asking their gay-marriage cases be heard by the nation’s highest court.
“A ruling from the United States Supreme Court would end the constitutional debate, end this appeal, and end all related cases,” Bondi wrote. “The State of Florida will respect the United States Supreme Court’s final word. In the meantime, this Court should preserve taxpayer and judicial resources by staying briefing until the United States Supreme Court rules.”
Lawyers for eight same-sex couples, who last month won the right to marry in Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, say they want the cases heard as soon as possible at the Florida Supreme Court.
“Justice need not be patient,” said Miami Beach attorney Elizabeth Schwartz, who co-represents six couples and Equality Florida Institute in the Miami-Dade case. “In my law practice, I see the real-life damage done to same-couples each day because of the failure to allow us to marry or to recognize our out-of-state marriages. For Florida's attorney general to argue that they should continue to wait, asserting both that there is no real urgency and, somehow, the Florida Supreme Court is incapable of resolving the matter statewide is insulting to Floridians and to our judiciary.”
Bondi’s filing in court came as a response to motions by the eight same-sex couples, whose lawyers want the cases to be consolidated and sent from the appeals court directly to the Florida Supreme Court.
The attorney general agreed to consolidating the cases, but said there is no rush to conclude the Florida cases. Bondi’s filings did not mention rulings this week in Broward and Palm Beach counties that also declared Florida’s 2008 gay-marriage amendment as unconstitutional.
The appeals court has not said whether it will keep the cases or send them to Florida’s Supreme Court.
So far, no same-sex couples have been married in Florida. Rulings by Monroe County Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel have been stayed until the cases are appealed.
Bondi believes the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the issue, perhaps before the Florida cases are resolved.
“If the United States Supreme Court rules before this court does, there will be nothing left for this Court to decide,” Bondi wrote.
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, disagrees. The ACLU and LGBT-rights group SAVE represent about a dozen same-sex couples in a separate marriage-recognition case in Tallahassee federal court.
“Florida couples and families shouldn’t be forced to wait to be treated equally to secure health insurance for a spouse and children, to ensure greater economic security for their families,” Simon said. “These families should not suffer just because our attorney general has chosen a legal strategy that has plagued her with awkward and embarrassing media coverage.”
Bondi, whose own marital history (she has been divorced twice) has been scrutinized since she began defending Florida’s gay-marriage ban, said whichever way the U.S. Supreme Court rules, the Sunshine State will accept the decision.
“Despite the vigorous policy and legal debates surrounding same-sex marriage, there is little disagreement about this: If the United States Supreme Court holds that States must sanction same-sex marriage, then Florida’s contrary laws must fall,” Bondi wrote. “And if the United States Supreme Court holds that States may choose, then Plaintiffs’ contrary legal claims must fall, and it would be up to Florida’s voters to effect any change. Either way, this appeal would be over, and it would end without consuming any further taxpayer resources and without burdening Florida’s judiciary.”
Bernadette Restivo, an attorney for Key West plaintiffs Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, said there is no guarantee the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether states can ban gay marriage and that Bondi, who is up for reelection in November, is “more worried about the voters than fundamental rights.”
“We’ve had four very scholarly judicial opinions, all concluding that fundamental rights cannot be put to a vote. Absolutely not,” Restivo said. “Her response was so cavalier to the essence of our clients’ case. The civil rights that are being addressed go to the very core of our being. To expect our clients and other hundreds of thousands who are similarly situated — to put their lives on hold — is outrageous.”