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Wright v. Arkansas

Wright v. Arkansas was a case involving same-sex marriage in Arkansas. Beginning with a May 2014 decision by a state district court judge, which overturned Arkansas’s ban on gay marriage, the case was stalled in the courts for the next fourteen months. In response to the original decision, one that came amidst the turmoil that surrounded the issue of gay marriage nationwide, the state attorney general secured a temporary stay of the ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court. Subsequently, additional efforts were undertaken to get a full review by the state’s highest court and then, alternatively, in a special court. A change in the occupants of the offices of both governor and state attorney general contributed to delays, however, and these efforts were rendered moot by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, a decision that guaranteed the right of same-sex couples to marry anywhere in the United States.

The legal challenge to Arkansas’s gay marriage ban began on July 1, 2013, when a group of gay couples, denied marriage licenses by local Arkansas officials, filed suit. The original plaintiffs were subsequently joined by others so that, by the time the case was heard in court, it included an array of plaintiffs, some of whom had been denied in their efforts to marry, as well as others whose marriages, while legally sanctioned in other jurisdictions, were not recognized by Arkansas law. In bringing their suits, the plaintiffs argued that Sections 9-11-208 and 9-11-107 of the Arkansas Code, as well as Amendment 83 of the state constitution, were denials of their rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Given that some of the plaintiffs had marriages that had been fully sanctioned in other states, they also argued that Arkansas’s denial of marriage rights was a violation of the Constitution’s full faith and credit clause.

The case was assigned to Circuit Court judge Chris Piazza. A motion to dismiss the case was dispatched in December 2013, and in February 2014 the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment. Oral arguments were held in April 2014, and on May 9, 2014, Piazza granted the plaintiffs’ request for summary judgement, declaring that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was a violation of both the federal and state Constitution.

Judge Piazza’s decision addressed two specific legal provisions. The first, Act 144, enacted in 1997 by the Arkansas General Assembly, declared that “A marriage shall be only between a man and woman,” adding that “A marriage between persons of the same sex is void.” Meanwhile, the second contested provision, Amendment 83 of the Arkansas Constitution, approved in a public referendum on November 2, 2004, said essentially the same thing as Act 144, although it added a crucial provision: even people married in other states remained unmarried as defined by Arkansas law and their professed unions would not be valid or recognized in the state. The laws also noted that the legislature had the authority to determine both who could marry as well as which rights and responsibilities accompanied the marital state. Ultimately, Piazza’s ruling was based in the equal protection and the due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution, as well as Article 2, section 2 of the Arkansas Constitution.

Immediately after Judge Piazza’s ruling, more than 500 same-sex marriage licenses were issued across the state. The judge himself became a flashpoint in Arkansas politics, with supporters calling him a hero and opponents demanding his impeachment. Meanwhile, in an emergency filing by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, the state asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to intervene and stay Piazza’s order so as “to avoid confusion and uncertainty.” The Court complied, issuing a stay pending both further review and an expected decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The situation in Arkansas was in many ways reflective of the confusion that existed across the country in regards to the issue of gay marriage. With the issuance of the stay by the Arkansas Supreme Court, the state became the fifth state operating in the legal limbo resulting from the state courts’ desire to give the matter further review while also waiting for more definitive guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the seventeen states (plus the District of Columbia) that had—through legislation, referendum, or court decision—legalized the practice also awaited a high court ruling that would resolve the ongoing inconsistencies.

In the months that followed, legal maneuvering on both sides of the issue continued, all coming against the backdrop of an expected decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. While Attorney General McDaniel asked a federal judge to delay action in a suit in federal court, pending the decision of a gay marriage case the High Court was scheduled to hear in the fall of 2014, the Arkansas legislature passed resolutions urging the state Supreme Court to rule on the case and uphold the ban.

Those resolutions came in the midst of a tumultuous court session. Reports indicate that the Arkansas Supreme Court, a body that had previously experienced divisive debates over issues related to homosexuality (specifically, the state’s sodomy laws as well as its restrictions on the rights of gay individuals to adopt or serve as foster parents), was engaged in another round of acrimonious and politically charged deliberations. These proceedings were magnified by the partisan change in the state government, with Republicans securing both branches of the legislature and all of the constitutional offices in the 2014 elections. In addition, debates over whether the judges running for reelection in the 2014 contests should recuse themselves also flared. Although preliminary efforts were undertaken to have the case reviewed by a special panel, the new occupants in both the governor’s and attorney general’s offices slowed the process.

Things remained in limbo until the U.S. Supreme Court acted. The resolution finally came at the end of the Court’s 2014–2015 session in Obergefell v. Hodges. In that decision, handed down on June 26, 2015, the Court, by a 5–4 vote in an opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry anywhere in the United States. While it did not end some ongoing debate surrounding the issue of gay marriage and LGBT rights in the United States, Obergefell v. Hodges did bring the case of Wright v. Arkansas to a conclusion.

For additional information:
Brantley, Max. “Delay, Delay, and Then a Change of Heart.” Arkansas Times, July 2, 2015, pp. 20–23. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/a-timeline-of-the-arkansas-supreme-court-and-the-same-sex-marriage-case/Content?oid=3932700 (accessed October 27, 2016).

Wright v. Arkansas. http://opinions.aoc.arkansas.gov/WebLink8/0/doc/327007/Electronic.aspx (accessed October 27, 2016).

Wright v. Arkansas. Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse. http://www.clearinghouse.net/detail.php?id=13065 (accessed October 27, 2016).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated 5/11/2017

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