Arkansas governor selects 3 justices to sit in on case that has sidelined gay marriage appeal


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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — A former Supreme Court justice who helped strike down Arkansas' ban on gay foster parents and an ex-legislator who tried to reinstate that prohibition were appointed Tuesday to help decide a case related to the challenge over same-sex marriage.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson named former Justice Betty Dickey, Circuit Judge and former state Sen. Shawn Womack and Searcy attorney Brett Watson as special justices to a case that centers on which Supreme Court members can participate in the challenge to Arkansas' gay marriage ban. The court has said the dispute over whether a newly elected justice or a special justice appointed last year can participate must be resolved before the gay marriage case can proceed.

Hutchinson said none of the three had approached him about serving on the case.

"These are really three distinguished members of the legal profession, and I think they will provide the necessary brainpower and legal analysis for the Supreme Court in these cases and will serve the state well," Hutchinson told reporters.

A Pulaski County judge struck down the state's gay marriage ban last May, and more than 500 same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses before the Supreme Court suspended his ruling. The state has argued the case should be decided by the current lineup of the court, since two justices who heard oral arguments in November have since been replaced.

The debate could mean the state does not resolve the issue before the nation's highest court does. The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear oral arguments in a case that could decide whether gay marriage is legal nationwide. A ruling from the court is expected by late June.

Dickey was appointed interim chief justice in 2004 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, for whom she had served as legal counsel, and she was the first woman to hold that post in the court's history. She was appointed to another post on the court the following year and served through 2006.

She was the GOP nominee for attorney general in 1998, but lost in the general election. Dickey endorsed Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's campaign last year. Dickey said Tuesday she was "humbled" by Hutchinson appointing her.

Womack said in a statement released by his office that he was "humbled and grateful for the trust (Hutchinson) is placing in me to decide this case." Watson didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

Dickey served on the court in 2006 when it unanimously struck down a state regulation banning gays and lesbians from being foster parents. Then a state senator, Womack the following year introduced legislation aimed at reinstating the ban by prohibiting gays, lesbians and unmarried couples living together from becoming foster or adoptive parents. The Senate approved the bill, but was rejected by a House committee.

"We did not have a trial in Arkansas on whether gay people are good parents," Womack said at the time. "We had a trial on whether a state agency had overstepped its bounds."

Voters approved a similar restriction in 2008, which was also struck down by the court.

Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justice Paul Danielson have recused themselves from the case over who can participate in the gay marriage appeal, and have accused the other members of the court of unnecessarily delaying the lawsuit. Justice Rhonda Wood, who joined the court in January, has also recused herself from the case.

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