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Judge rules in favor of same sex couple in LA

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Before a packed courtroom filled with supporters for the couple Janet Newton and Maria Thibodeau, who applied for a marriage license last week, district judge Sheri Raphaelson ruled they can get married in Los Alamos.

Los Alamos County Clerk Sharon Stover was in court Wednesday morning, arguing her case in front of district judge Sheri Raphaelson. Stover said Tuesday  she would not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and went to court to defend her decision.

Raphaelson, however, did not grant Stover’s request for a stay and forced the clerk to issue the license.

Stover said in a statement Tuesday that New Mexico’s marriage laws haven’t been changed since the 1960s, and the law includes a marriage license application with sections for male and female applicants.

Raphaelson, in her ruling,” the form can not trump the law. The law trumps the form.”

And with that, the couple headed to the clerk’s office to get their license.

Stover also argued that the state Supreme Court needs to resolve lingering legal questions over whether gay marriage is legal statewide.

Seven counties in the past two weeks have started granting licenses to same-sex couples.

Newton and Thibodeau went to the clerk’s office last Tuesday and were denied by Stover. Newton and Thibodeau then filed suit and were rewarded with a court order, which stipulated they should receive a marriage license.

Armed with that order from Raphaelson, they tried again Friday and were again denied. Stover announced Friday she did not have enough time to go through all the court documentation and would make an announcement Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Stover announced she would go to court Wednesday and Friday that she would make her decision Tuesday as to whether she would abide by the order.

County public information officer Julie Habiger said that county attorney Rebecca Ehler filed a response to the court order.

Stover then released a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“Last week, Los Alamos County received a lawsuit and related order from First Judicial District Court Judge Sheri Raphaelson compelling the Clerk’s office to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses, or appear before her in court at 10 a.m. Wednesday to explain why the licenses are not being issued. As previously stated on Friday, I consider this to be a matter of great importance, not only to Los Alamos County, but to all County Clerks in New Mexico, as I have already indicated by my support in joining all of the other Clerks in the New Mexico Association of Counties’ request for the State Supreme Court to provide procedural guidance on how we should proceed. 

“I have weighed my options carefully over the holiday weekend in reaching a decision. First, as Clerk, I am required to uphold the laws of the State of New Mexico. I based my denial of a license last week on the actual language contained in the statutes. The statements contained on the marriage license that is issued by the Clerk’s office, as set forth in State law, requires a male and female or bride and groom applicant. I respect and value the rights of each person to be treated as equally and fairly as an individual as our Constitution states. Clearly, the marriage license in State statute has not been updated since 1961. It does not work for same sex couples, and that is a matter for the legislature to fix, not a Clerk and not a District Judge. A marriage license is a legally binding, permanent record signed by both applicants. Because the license issue has not previously been addressed in any of the other court proceedings, I have decided to appear before Judge Raphaelson tomorrow at 10 a.m. in Los Alamos to state my concern about the outdated and deficient forms.  The County Attorney has filed our answer to the writ of mandamus we received last week, and I will let that document address each of the concerns specifically without further comment. In fact, because I will be appearing in court, it would not be appropriate for me to give any further comments to the media prior to Wednesday morning.

“However, I do want to say in closing that this is a legislative problem; forms enacted as state statutes should be changed by the appropriate legislative body, which is our state legislature. I urge the State Supreme Court to take up this matter quickly and to provide guidance to all County Clerks throughout the State. Piecemeal litigation in courts across New Mexico is not good governance. County Clerks need a comprehensive and clear answer from the State of New Mexico addressing this issue. We all need to be issuing the same marriage license, and following the same laws.”

Newton’s and Thibodeau’s lawyers  — Egolf + Ferlic + Day — issued a response to Stover Tuesday afternoon.

“It is important for the citizens of Los Alamos to know that their elected clerk has asked them to take a back seat to plaintiffs in Albuquerque and to let a similar lawsuit elsewhere take precendence over the case before Judge Raphaelson in Los Alamos.  By seeking a stay in this case, Clerk Stover is ‘forum shopping’ -- shopping around to try to find a judge and a region of the state that she likes better than what she has in Los Alamos County,” the response said.

“Our clients believe that Judge Raphaelson is exactly the right judge to decide their case - at home in Los Alamos County.  Clerk Stover’s decision to ask her constituents to wait while an Albuquerque judge acts is as surprising as it is unsupported in the law.  Simply put, there is no reason why Clerk Stover should force Janet Newton and Maria Thibodeau to move to “the back of the bus” to wait months for a different lawsuit elsewhere to be resolved.

“As we have seen in recent weeks, the Supreme Court’s decision to act quickly in this case is anything but certain.  This makes Clerk Stover’s decision to ask for a stay even more puzzling.  We and our clients believe that the case before Judge Raphaelson is just as far along as is the Albuqerque case and that mechanisms for consolidation before the Supreme Court remain available.  Simply put, there is no reason to wait to bring marriage equality to Los Alamos.”

Meanwhile, the legal fight over gay marriage in New Mexico broadened s a seventh county announced plans to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Grant County Clerk Robert Zamarripa said his office will comply with a judge’s ruling issued Tuesday and will begin providing the licenses next week.

“We’ll let the Legislature and courts decide after this what needs to be done,” Zamarripa said in a telephone interview.

His comments came shortly after District Judge J.C. Robinson issued an order requiring the clerk to issue marriage licenses “on a nondiscriminatory basis” to same-sex couples.

John Severance, Arin McKenna and the Associated Press contributed to this report.