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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Critics see politics in Bondi’s gay-marriage move

­­— Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has run into criticism over her defense of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, wants to hit the pause button on challenges to the ban until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the issue.

Her motions say it’s likely the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon, so it would be a waste of time and taxpayer money for the state courts to proceed.

But same-sex marriage backers said Friday that Bondi, who’s running for re-election, is simply trying to duck out of the politically sensitive fight at the expense of same-sex couples seeking relief from the ban. A lawyer for those backers said they will oppose Bondi’s motion to pause litigation on the case.

Still, at least one prominent religious conservative activist who opposes same-sex marriage said Bondi’s move is a prudent response to the legal situation surrounding the issue.

Bondi’s office has filed motions asking Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal to halt appeal proceedings in cases from Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, where circuit judges ruled the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional.

The state court, she said, “should preserve taxpayer and judicial resources by staying briefing until the United States Supreme Court rules.”

“If the United States Supreme Court holds that States must sanction same-sex marriage, then Florida’s contrary laws must fall,” Bondi wrote in her motion. But if high court holds that states have the right to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman only, the couples’ legal claims would lose.

“Either way, this appeal would be over.”

Bondi, who has declined interviews previously on this subject, wasn’t available for comment Friday.

Florida has both statutes and a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2008 defining marriage as one man and one woman only.

Following U.S. Supreme Court decisions last year favorable to same-sex marriage rights, however, judges in a number of states have overruled similar state bans.

In Florida, four trial court judges have ruled the state’s ban unconstitutional since July 17 — in cases in Palm Beach and Broward counties as well as the Monroe and Miami-Dade cases.

In June, Bondi drew sharp criticism from Democrats and gay-rights supporters over her defense of the ban in a federal court case.

She said she was only representing the rights of voters who passed the amendment, not taking a position on same-sex marriage. But critics pointed to language in her filing that allowing same-sex marriage would cause “significant public harm” to “family continuity and stability.”

Since then, “Nothing has changed legally,” said Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who’s involved in the Florida litigation. “The mere possibility that the Supreme Court might one day review this is no reason for the state courts not to do their job and rule on the case right in front of them involving plaintiffs who are suffering serious harm.”

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said Bondi, who faces a challenge for re-election this fall, is seeking to “shelve the issue of the freedom to marry because it is increasingly inconvenient for electoral politics.”

Nadine Smith of Equality Florida, the state’s most prominent gay rights group, noted that other state attorneys general have abandoned defending same-sex marriage bans.

“We agree with AG Bondi on one thing,” Smith said. “She is wasting taxpayer’s money by continuing to defend this discriminatory law. ... While AG Bondi delays, thousands of Florida families are denied the security and protections that come with the freedom to marry.”

But Orlando lawyer John Stemberger of the Florida Family Council, a leading conservative Christian political advocacy group, said Bondi’s move “is probably the most fair and responsible thing that could be done and it’s also the correct thing legally.”

The Supreme Court must decide the issue, Stemberger said, and “It would not be fair to anybody involved if marriage licenses were granted but then had to be invalidated subsequently.”

He previously praised Bondi for defending the ban in the federal case, issuing a news release headlined, “What Leadership Looks Like.”

The difference, Stemberger said, is “now have a case that’s before the Supreme Court,” or likely to be.

In her motion, Bondi pointed to two cases in which a federal appeals court has thrown out state bans, in Utah and Oklahoma, but stayed its decision because of the possibility the Supreme Court will take up the cases.

It’s not certain, but likely, the high court will hear one of the cases, she argued.

But Minter said the fact the state of Utah filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to hear its case doesn’t change anything.

“The Supreme Court gets thousands of petitions every year,” he said. “They take less than 1 percent. If they take this one, a decision wouldn’t come until next summer at the earliest.”

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Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

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