Sunday, August 25, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: What a Difference 9 Years Make

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Aug. 25, 2013

Note: This column was written Thursday, before Santa Fe County Clerk Geraldine Salazar began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The main points of this column still stand. For more on what happened in Santa Fe  CLICK HERE

Dona Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins
There’s no doubt that attitudes toward gay marriage have shifted rapidly in recent years. That shift was on display last week once again in New Mexico with the story of the defiant Doña Ana County Clerk who began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

As most news organizations noted, a similar thing happened nine years ago in February 2004, when Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap — a Republican — began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Before the state put a halt to it, 66 same-sex couples, including nine from Santa Fe, had a license to wed.

“It was the same issue right at the forefront,” said Paul Livingston of Placitas, Dunlap’s attorney, in an interview Thursday. “It’s very clear that the Constitution provides protection against gender discrimination, and there’s nothing in state law that prevents [gay couples from getting married].”
While the issue and the legal argument of both Dunlap and Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins are the same, the reactions by elected officials have been quite different.

Last week, Attorney General Gary King made it clear that while he personally prefers the courts decide the issue, he wasn’t going to do anything to stop Ellins — or any other county clerk who follows suit — from issuing marriage certificates. Other politicians, including Santa Fe Mayor David Coss and Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman, enthusiastically praised Ellins.

As has been the case with other recent advancements of marriage equality, there was no opposing statement coming from the state Republican Party — although some GOP legislators were talking about filing a court action to try to stop the licensed being issued.

In fact, public opposition to Ellins’ action has been relatively muted, the rhetoric low-key. The Catholic bishops sent out a statement against it. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez released a statement reiterating her belief that marriage was for one man and one woman and that voters should decide the issue.

Actually, Martinez’s reaction basically was similar to Gov. Bill Richardson’s in 2004. “I do believe that marriage is between a man and woman. So I oppose same-sex marriage,” Richardson said at a news conference, according to an Associated Press story at the time.

In 2004, Republicans and Democrats were denouncing Dunlap’s action. Leading that charge was King’s predecessor, Attorney General Patricia Madrid. An Associated Press story that ran Feb. 21, 2004, the day after Dunlap started issuing the licenses, said that “hours after the nuptials began,” Madrid “declared invalid the 26 licenses that had been issued.”

That wasn’t quite true. The only time the validity of one of those Sandoval County licenses was ever tested in court was a 2010 divorce case in Santa Fe. State District Judge Sarah Singleton ruled the marriage was valid. Later in 2004, Madrid won a temporary restraining order against Dunlap, stopping any more licenses from being issued.
SF County Commissioner Liz Stefanics & long-time
gay-rights lobbyist Linda Siegle say their wedding vows Friday.
They were the first same-sex couple to be issued a marriage license in SantaFe County.

Republicans also denounced Dunlap. The Sandoval County GOP punished her a few months later in the 2004 primary by overwhelming voting against her bid for a County Commission seat.

In a January 2005 interview with The Associated Press, Dunlap — who at that point was living in Ohio — insisted she’d been correct about marriage equality. “It is not illegal in New Mexico,” she told the wire service.

“The law is wide open, and it is embarrassing that the attorney general can’t figure it out. Those couples need to get together and sue the hell out of Patricia Madrid,” Dunlap said.

Livingston said Thursday that back in 2004, Dunlap had very little support. Even some gay-rights advocates were suspicious of her, he said. Some advocates even accused her of being part of some plot to set it up so that the Legislature would pass a definitive law against gay marriage, he said. “It was very weird,” he said.

Indeed, there was at least one “Defense of Marriage Act” introduced in the Legislature the next year. But, as has been the case with all such legislation, it didn’t get very far.

And if there’s any legislative backlash next year to Ellin’s move in Doña Ana County, it has even less of a chance for success.