Alaska News

U.S. Supreme Court rules Alaska same-sex marriages can go forward; state vows to keep appealing

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Alaska's request for an emergency stay Friday morning, allowing same-sex marriages to resume in the state.

The one-line response came at 11:01 a.m., just one minute after a stay from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved as scheduled.

The order allows marriages to proceed. However, with state offices closed in observance of Alaska Day, it was impossible for couples to apply for a marriage license or pick up licenses that had been issued earlier in the week. Marriages are set to resume Monday.

The state vowed to continue its appeals.

"In 1998, Alaska voters passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. When they did that, it became part of the Alaska Constitution, which Gov. Parnell has sworn to uphold," spokeswoman Sharon Leighow wrote in an email. "Today's denial of the stay doesn't change that and the State will continue with this appeal to the 9th Circuit. The State will comply with the earlier court rulings and resume issuing marriage licenses on Monday. The State will be filing its request for en banc review next week."

Alaska is the last state in the 9th Circuit to continue appealing rulings, according to American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska executive director Joshua Decker. Nevada and Idaho dropped their appeals earlier in the week, as did Arizona on Friday immediately after U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick struck down that state's ban. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead also said Friday that despite his personal conviction, Wyoming will not appeal a judge's ruling against the state's same-sex marriage ban.

"I'm surprised Parnell has not chosen to listen to the wisdom of fellow governors, all of whom may disagree with the court's decision but have said 'the courts have spoken, this is what the law is,'" Decker said.


The Friday rulings marked the latest in a week of complicated legal back-and-forth following U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess' ruling Sunday overturning Alaska's same-sex marriage ban.

Alaska same-sex couples began applying for marriage licenses Monday, while the state quickly filed notice to appeal with the 9th Circuit Court and requested a stay from Burgess at the U.S. District Court level.

On Tuesday, Burgess denied the stay, forcing the state to request an emergency stay from the 9th Circuit. That court granted the stay Wednesday evening, halting marriages a day before the first licenses would have been issued Thursday morning.

The stay allowed Alaska to seek an additional stay from the U.S. Supreme Court. The state Department of Law filed the emergency request Thursday morning with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has jurisdiction over Western states. Kennedy referred the issue to the full court, which rejected the stay without comment.

Attorney Caitlin Shortell, one of three attorneys representing plaintiffs in Hamby v. Parnell, the case challenging Alaska's same-sex marriage ban, said while the waiting was tough, she was not surprised by the Supreme Court's decision.

"I'm on many levels totally overjoyed that it is really going forward now," Shortell said. "Equal marriage can't be stopped."

Fellow attorney Allison Mendel expressed relief in the decision. Since plaintiffs prevailed, Mendel said, attorneys would now make a motion to ask for attorney fees from the state.

Mendel said there's "not a lot of hope" the state will prevail in overturning the ruling, especially as other states and circuit courts overturn similar bans in other states. While the state has argued that a potential ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could possibly uphold bans across the nation, Mendel doesn't think that's likely.

"People are getting married everywhere, which is going to make it hard for them to run the clock backward, no matter what," Mendel said. "But right now we're just happy and relieved and happy."

Loren Leman, former Alaska lieutenant governor and former state senator, expressed dismay at the court decision.

"It was like a kick in the gut," he said of Burgess' Sunday ruling overturning the ban.

Read more: A short history of same-sex marriage in Alaska

Leman was one of the lead sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 42, the first step Alaska took in implementing the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. More than two-thirds majorities in the state Senate and the House approved the resolution before it went to Alaskans in a referendum, which was approved by 68 percent of voters.

In the almost 16 years since, Leman has fought consistently for the marriage amendment. He had hoped that more of a national conversation about marriage would begin before the courts overturned bans.

"Of course there has been the push in the courts, but there really hasn't been a substantive conversation about the value of marriage, why we have it and why we define it the way it is," Leman said. "When we take all that together, (Burgess') decision was disappointing."

Leman acknowledged that the crux of many states' arguments in trying to uphold same-sex marriage bans has been that the bans were enacted by voters. Courts have rejected that on numerous occasions.

Leman contended you could apply the same reasoning to numerous issues, including changing the minimum voting or drinking age.

"We, as a society, establish certain boundaries for how we live, who we are," Leman said, " and some people will call that discrimination. I just call it establishing rules about how we operate as a society."


Decker of the ACLU offered a different perspective. He disagreed that the conversation about marriage has been moving too slowly, since the ACLU brought its first marriage equality lawsuit in 1970.

"I think if you ask any Alaskan or American whose rights are being denied, whether marriage or any other equal rights, they would say it's been too long," Decker said. "A day being discriminated against is a day too long."

For Stephanie Pearson and Courtney Lamb, two plaintiffs in the Hamby v. Parnell case, and the only one of the five couples challenging the lawsuit who had not been married in another jurisdiction, the decision was long in coming.

"It was the decision we were waiting for," Pearson said in a Facebook message. "The past two days have seemed like an eternity."

Pearson and Lamb will be picking up their marriage license Monday morning with plans to marry as soon as they have the license in hand. Pearson said she hopes Parnell will "stand down" from challenging the lawsuit.

"This is a fight that love is going to win!" Pearson said.

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.