By Tim Evans
Jul 2, 2014
The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the state to recognize the same-sex marriage of one Hoosier couple.
The decision marks the latest development in a week of court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage in Indiana before banning it again three days later.
Tuesday's ruling came at the request of Amy Sandler and Niki Quasney, who is terminally ill. They are among the couples who had filed lawsuits earlier this year challenging the state law than bans same-sex marriage and the recognition of gay marriages conducted legally in other states.
A three-judge panel from the federal appeals court in Chicago ordered the unique recognition for the Munster couple a day after it announced plans to expedite the appeal of U.S. District Judge Richard Young's ruling last week that found Indiana's ban unconstitutional.
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond School of Law professor who has been tracking same-sex marriage legal cases across the country, said this is the first case he is aware of in which a federal appeals court has ordered a state to recognize the marriage of a gay couple while an appeal is pending.
Since December, federal judges have struck down laws similar to Indiana's ban in more than 10 other states, and those cases are now being appealed.
This isn't the first time that Sandler and Quasney have had the distinction of being the only gay couple in Indiana to have their marriage legally acknowledged by the state.
In April, Young issued an emergency order requiring the state to recognize the couple's marriage last year in Massachusetts. But that recognition ended late Friday, when a panel from the 7th Circuit ordered a stay of Young's ruling last week while the state appeals his decision.
"It is time for the state of Indiana to leave Niki and Amy in peace and not subject them and their marriage to any more stress and uncertainty as this case proceeds," said Paul D. Castillo, staff attorney for Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights legal firm that represented the couple in its lawsuit against the state.
"We're thrilled that the court ruled in favor of this family as Niki battles stage four ovarian cancer. We will continue to fight until no family in Indiana needs to worry about their marriage being stripped away from them and all Hoosiers have the freedom to marry."
The couple had argued that lack of recognition for their marriage would endanger Sandler's ability to collect Social Security and other death benefits. Quasney was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five years ago and has since gone through chemotherapy. The couple's two daughters, ages 1 and 3, are Sandler's biological children.
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Sandler told The Indianapolis Star that she and Quasney were pleased with Tuesday's ruling but wish it applied to all same-sex couples.
"It means a lot to Niki and I that the panel of judges took the time to read about — carefully read about — our situation and realize that our marriage doesn't harm anybody in the state of Indiana," Sandler said.
"Protecting our marriage helps us, but also, we're only one family in Indiana. There are other families that are facing hardships just like us, and we're looking forward to the day when everyone has their marriage recognized in the state."
Attorneys from Lambda Legal had filed a request Monday seeking an emergency order granting the couple recognition. A spokeswoman criticized Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who is leading Indiana's push to overturn Young's ruling.
"Attorney General Zoeller's callous disregard for this family's circumstances is heartless, cruel, and unbecoming of a public official charged with representing the interests of all Hoosiers," Camilla Taylor said. "He is taking steps that no other attorney general anywhere in the country has in fighting to deny respect to the marriage of only one couple facing very significant health issues."
Zoeller's office issued a statement Tuesday indicating he sympathized with the couple and wished there was some wiggle room under the law to help them.
"The state has extensively researched this matter and sincerely wishes it found a provision within our state's statutes that would allow for some extraordinary relief or humanitarian exception to the rule of law that would grant what petitioners request," Zoeller said. "If this court can find an exception that would apply, this circumstance surely warrants its use."
Spokeswoman Staci Schneider said the attorney general's office respects the court's ruling in this matter and would have no further comment at this time.
The decision to expedite the appeal issued late Monday will speed up the process by about six weeks, with the final deadline for filing documents moved from Sept. 19 to Aug. 5.
Tobias, the law professor tracking same-sex marriage cases in federal courts across the U.S., said the appeals court order to grant recognition to Sandler and Quasney is not necessarily an indication of how the court will rule in the appeal.
"I thought they made a very persuasive argument," he said, "but I guess I would not read too much into it. It seems like the just and fair result to this one couple involved. Even a judge who thought that a ban should be upheld might find an exception justified in this particular case."
He did say, however, that Judge Young's earlier order, which had granted recognition of their marriage, may have helped sway the appellate panel.
"Why deny it to them?" he noted.
The appellate court's decision to expedite the case could be more significant, Tobias said.
He said the 7th Circuit will probably be the fourth appeals court to rule on the issue. That could put it in the mix with others for Supreme Court review.
"If the 7th Circuit were to issue (its opinion) after too many others or after too much time had passed, the opinion may miss out on being the one reviewed," he said.
Star reporters Jill Disis and Kristine Guerra contributed to this story. Call Star reporter Tim Evans at (317) 444-6204. Follow him on Twitter: @starwatchtim.