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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
And I'm Audie Cornish.
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The U.S. Supreme Court has put on hold a lower court decision that declared Utah's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. The justices granted a request from the state to issue the stay pending an appeal. The decision is procedural, but that means that gay weddings in the state will be halted for now. Joining us to sort all this out and more is NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg. Hi there, Nina.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hi there, Audie.
CORNISH: So just how big a deal is this, that they granted this stay? Should we be reading a lot into it?
TOTENBERG: I don't really think so. First of all, there were no dissenters, so the court appears to have been unanimous. And second, you have to realize that the whole question of gay marriage is a huge deal. And if the court had not granted a stay, it would have meant that without the issue being resolved at the highest level, same-sex marriages would have occurred in Utah and likely in other states, too.
CORNISH: How would that work? Explain.
TOTENBERG: Well, there are currently 42 challenges to state bans on gay marriage pending in courts all over the country, most of them in federal court. Now, some of those plaintiffs are going to win, just as the plaintiffs won at the district court level in Utah. And if the Supreme Court had refused to grant a stay in the Utah case, it would mean that judges all over the country would take their cues from that. And this is way, way too big an issue to let that happen sort of through the backdoor without any actual Supreme Court ruling. So the bottom line here is that the normal rule is that courts try to preserve the status quo in a case like this.
CORNISH: So as we understand it now, before gay marriages were halted in Utah, there were some 900-plus couples that had been married. What happens to those marriages? Are they legal?
TOTENBERG: Well, a lot depends on what happens with the appeal. But regardless, these were marriages that were legal when they took place. So even if Utah were ultimately to prevail, there would likely be litigation over the legality of these unions.
CORNISH: And with the timetable here, help us understand whether it's going to be the Utah case as opposed to some other that will decide this issue.
TOTENBERG: We don't really know. There are three cases that are either in or headed for appeals courts, cases that have been decided by district court judges. First, there's the Utah case. The 10th Circuit Appeals Court has set out a schedule for briefs in the case to be filed by the end of February, which likely means oral arguments in March. In the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, there's a gay rights group that's appealing a district court ruling that upheld the state ban on gay marriage in Nevada. And in Ohio, there's a case in which the question is whether the state has to recognize an out-of-state same-sex marriage for purposes of a death certificate in which the surviving partner wants to be designated as spouse. And the state, as I understand it, has not yet filed a notice of appeal but it likely will.
CORNISH: And are any of these cases expected to get to the U.S. Supreme Court for a decision this term?
TOTENBERG: I think that would be highly unlikely. Much more likely is that we'd have a decision in one or more of these cases by next term and that we'd have some sort of a decision by June of 2015. But even that isn't a complete certainty.
CORNISH: Why not?
TOTENBERG: Well, I think it was pretty clear this past June when the court issued its first gay marriage rulings that it wanted to go slow and take an incremental approach. Now, that admittedly seems more and more difficult, given the explosion of cases since then. But if the Utah and Nevada bans on gay marriage were upheld by their respective appeals courts, the Supreme Court doesn't have to hear those appeals. It could wait and, as they say, let the issue percolate. It might be more interested in a more incremental case, like the one from Ohio. But you have to say that as we've watched these cases, it's been faster and faster than we thought every single time.
CORNISH: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.
TOTENBERG: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.