ATLANTA (AP) — The Alabama Supreme Court is in a showdown with a federal judge who ruled that the state's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional. The state's justices say they remain the authority on state law, at least until the U.S. Supreme Court settles the question of whether the U.S. Constitution gives gay couples nationwide a fundamental right to marry.
So until then, who prevails in Alabama, no stranger to disputes between state and federal authorities? Some key questions and answers:
—WHAT HAVE THE COURTS ACTUALLY SAID?
U.S. District Court Judge Callie "Ginny" Granade, who sits in Mobile, Ala., ruled that Alabama's ban violates the U.S. Constitution's "equal protection" and "due process" clauses. Four federal appeals courts made similar rulings, based on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That case stopped short of explicitly striking down state laws confining marriage to heterosexuals.
The Alabama Supreme Court declared Tuesday that marriage between a man and a woman remains "the fundamental unit of society," and ordered county officials to stop issuing licenses to gays and lesbians.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined Alabama's request to delay Granade's decisions, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which expects to rule later this year, likewise declined to intervene.
— BUT DOESN'T FEDERAL POWER TRUMP THE STATES?
Alabama's justices don't dispute that the U.S. Supreme Court has the last word on constitutional questions, but the relationship between the lower federal courts and state courts is more complicated.
The U.S. Constitution doesn't say whether state courts must adhere to federal court rulings. It simply created U.S. Supreme Court and authorized Congress to create other federal courts as necessary.
"State courts may interpret the U.S. Constitution independently from, and even contrary to, federal courts" short of the Supreme Court, the Alabama ruling states.
University of Alabama law professor Ronald Krotoszynski says that's technically correct. But he notes that Alabama stands alone in its reaction among the many states where federal judges have declared same-sex marriages legal.
"Does the (Alabama) court have the power to do this? Yes," the professor said. "Was it wise for the court to exercise its power this way? I'd say no. ... This is just not a standard kind of move in the inter-relationship between state and federal courts."
— SO WHAT SHOULD LOCAL OFFICIALS DO?
For now, they're following their state Court. After Granade's rulings, 48 out of 67 Alabama counties had issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group. But less than a day after the state court ruling, it could not find a single probate judge in Alabama issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
— WHAT HAPPENS TO THE SAME-SEX COUPLES WHO ALREADY MARRIED IN ALABAMA?
The state Supreme Court decision did not explicitly invalidate the licenses that probate judges have issued in recent weeks. But it did describe their licenses as "purported."
— IS THIS JUST ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF ALABAMA FLOUTING THE FEDS?
From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, the Alabama government has a long history of thumbing its collective nose at federal authorities. But disputes between state and federal courts aren't unique to Alabama.
Virginia state courts in recent years have upheld convictions under a state law outlawing sodomy among minors, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision throwing out a Texas anti-sodomy statute. California state courts have repeatedly applied state bankruptcy codes at odds with federal bankruptcy rulings.
— WHAT NEXT?
Gay rights advocates could find a gay or lesbian couple to apply for a marriage license and get denied. Then they could ask Granade to order their county's judge to issue a license. Also, a probate judge could join a federal appeal.
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