Analysis: Judge likely will overturn gay marriage ban

November 13, 2014
Emly Le Coz

If U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves doesn't grant the preliminary injunction sought against Mississippi's gay marriage ban, it will surprise most of the people in his courtroom on Wednesday.

Reeves grilled the state's defense of its gay marriage ban on almost every issue raised during the roughly five hours of arguments presented in a hearing for Campaign for Southern Equality v. Phil Bryant. At the same time, he appeared sympathetic to the plaintiffs who want the ban overturned.

Mississippi gay marriage ban in judge's hands
The hearing ended around 3:30 p.m. with Reeves saying he will take the matter under advisement and rule as soon as possible. He has two main decisions before him: Whether or not to grant the preliminary injunction and, if so, whether or not to issue a stay of that injunction.

Attorneys argued over the injunction during the morning session and over the stay during the afternoon session.

Nominated by President Barack Obama, Reeves took office in December 2010 as the second African-American federal judge from Mississippi, and he animates his courtroom with a quick humor that seems to put both sides of a case at ease. But he also pierces attorneys with sharp questions that reveal his command of the issues he must decide, and potentially, the way he'll ultimately rule.

Take, for example, this paraphrased exchange between Reeves and state counsel Paul Barnes of the attorney general's office:

Barnes: The state will fully defend its laws and the 2004 constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage that won 86 percent of the vote.

Reeves: If what 86 percent of the people voted for causes harm to a group of individuals that historically have faced discrimination, I hope the attorney general would not defend that.

Or this one:

Barnes: The court should issue a stay on an eventual preliminary injunction to avoid the chaos that ensued in places like Utah where we saw an on-again-off-again gay marriage ban.

Reeves: Or the state of Mississippi could just decide not to appeal a preliminary injunction. That, too, would prevent the type of on-again-off-again scenario it's trying to avoid.

Or this one:

Barnes: Same-sex couples don't need marriage to assert their rights. They can use other legal means like deeds and wills and advanced health-care directives.

Reeves: But that costs money, and those are all steps that opposite-sex couples don't need to take.

Barnes: But they're viable options that allow them the same benefits available to married couples.

Reeves: Then what's so unique about marriage to a state if everyone already has those rights?

Compare that to his interactions with lead counsel for the plaintiffs, Roberta Kaplan, in which many of Reeves' questions serve to further bolster her case:

Reeves: What evidence is there of horrible discrimination against same-sex couples in Mississippi?

Kaplan: The fact that we're here in court today is evidence. Gay couples can't marry. Gay couples can't adopt. Gay couples don't have any of the legal safety nets available to them under marriage that everyone else enjoys.

Or this one:

Reeves: How much value should the court give to statements made by legislators when determining whether the state's gay-marriage ban was motivated by bias, fear or stereotyping, in other words, impermissible animus?

Kaplan: Supreme Court Justice Kennedy found impermissible animus in striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) simply because the word "defense" was in its title. You don't have to get into the hearts and minds of the lawmakers to determine animus. You simply need to look at the statements they've made, like the one made by then-Gov. Kirk Fordice* when he called same-sex marriage perverse.

Reeves has a long history of fighting for equality and civil rights and often actively lobbied for more diversity on the bench.

He did a brief stint with the ACLU of Mississippi before starting his legal career during which he represented numerous plaintiffs and defendants in discrimination cases involving "race, sex, age, disability and national origin discrimination," according to his U.S. Senate Judiciary questionnaire answers.

Reeves also has been affiliated with the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And he earned a certificate of commendation from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

In 2001, Reeves was the guest speaker at Jackson State University Political Science Department's annual awards dinner where he gave a speech on "Using Law to Change Social Policy."

Reeves ended the hearing by thanking attorneys on both sides for their thoughtful and animated arguments and acknowledged the importance of the case.

Attorneys for the state declined to comment after the hearing, but Kaplan eagerly took questions about her impressions of the judge.

"Judge Reeves clearly was incredibly well prepared," she said outside the courthouse. "His questions were all incredibly smart and relevant. He was engaged and motivated."

How Reeves will rule, however, is a question only he can answer.

Contact Emily Le Coz at elecoz@jackson.gannett.com or (601) 961-7249. Follow @emily_lecoz on Twitter.