Arkansas clerk ready for final order on gay marriage; state Supreme Court decision pending

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FILE - In this May12, 2014, file photo, couples line up to file paperwork for marriage licenses at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., when the state's largest county began issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. A federal judge struck down Arkansas' gay marriage ban on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, which could pave the way for county clerks to resume issuing licenses. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)


LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — A top official in Arkansas' most populous county said Wednesday that his office is prepared to issue licenses if same-sex marriage returns to the Bible Belt.

Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane's statements came a day after a federal judge tossed the state's gay marriage ban, saying it violated the rights of same-sex couples despite being approved by 75 percent of the state's voters in a 2004 referendum. She put her ruling on hold pending an expected review by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We are quite honestly expecting additional (same-sex) licenses, but whether or not there will be a huge rush, we don't know," Crane said Wednesday. Crane also said that his software provider has made changes in computer systems anticipating that decisions rejecting same-sex marriage bans will be upheld.

When Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza in May tossed out the state ban without a stay in another case, Crane distributed the largest share of licenses to gay couples — more than 300 of the 541 granted over a week until the state Supreme Court put Piazza's ruling on hold.

Those marriages were the first in the Bible Belt, but their validity remains unclear until the state Supreme Court issues a final ruling.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued her ruling less than a week after hearing lawyers argue whether the voters' will or the rights of gay couples should take precedence. State Supreme Court justices heard arguments the same day in the separate case decided by Piazza.

"If the state Supreme Court determines that it is unconstitutional on state constitutional grounds, then the question stops there unless one of the parties appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Danielle Weatherby, an expert in gay marriage laws at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

If the appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court were to rule against the ban, even in a case from elsewhere in the 8th Circuit, the federal decision would trump any state decision, Weatherby said.

She said it is likely that justices will take up gay marriage because different appellate-level courts have reached different decisions in recent months. The state Supreme Court decision could come at any time, and is likely to come by the end of the year because two justices who heard arguments last Thursday are leaving the court then.

"The justices who presided over the case would have to be the ones that have to decide the issue," Weatherby said.

Crane said he wouldn't be surprised if, at least to start, he was the only clerk granting licenses.

Piazza's ruling triggered confusion for county clerks, and 69 of the 75 local officials declined to issue any. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who has vowed to defend the state's laws, sought the emergency stay, as did lawyers for four counties.

But eventually, Crane said, he expected that granting licenses to same-sex couples won't be a big deal.

"At some point it will just be getting married," Crane said.

McDaniel's office said Tuesday that McDaniel was reviewing Baker's ruling and would decide after the Thanksgiving holiday whether to appeal in consultation with Republican Attorney General-elect Leslie Rutledge.

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