by Ian Millhiser

In a surprising anti-climax to one of the most important legal battles of the last several decades, the Supreme Court announced this week that it would not hear several cases where federal appeals courts held that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the same marriage rights as straight couples. The announcement listed these marriage equality cases as part of a lengthy order listing the cases where the Court had denied review. The justices offered no explanation for their decision.

As a practical matter, however, this decision not to hear these cases is an earthquake for gay rights. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, refused to issue a stay halting its order favoring marriage equality. Although the Supreme Court later stepped in with its own stay order, that order provides that the Supreme Court’s stay will “terminate automatically” if the Supreme Court denies review of the case.

Now that the justices have done so, there should be no further legal barriers preventing marriages from beginning in those five states — although it is possible that there may be some delay before marriages may begin due to procedural steps that need to be taken by the judiciary.

The Court also denied review in cases arising out of the Seventh Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, and in the Tenth Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. It is likely that marriages will be able to begin quickly in those states as well — although it may be necessary for plaintiffs in some of those states to seek an order from a federal court requiring states that oppose marriage equality to comply with their obligations under the Constitution.

One thing that should be noted is that there are still marriage equality cases pending before conservative circuits that could rule against equality. Nevertheless, the fact that marriages are likely to begin very shortly in the states currently subject to court orders will make it very difficult for the Supreme Court to reverse course — and retroactively invalidate those marriages — in a subsequent opinion

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