Sarah Zabel (Aixa Montero)
Members of the conservative Christian Family Coalition Florida used the courtroom as a political stage for its campaign against same-sex marriage.
About 50 members of the group were in the gallery Tuesday when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel delayed a decision on whether to issue a 60-day stay in a lawsuit challenging the state Constitution’s ban on gay marriage.
Spectators, some of them children, wore square paper pins stating, “Voters support motion to abate” and held flyers proclaiming, “Judge Zabel, honor your oath” and “Respect our democracy.” The group also had a photographer taking pictures at the 20-minute hearing.
Miami Beach attorney Elizabeth Schwartz, who is co-counsel for the six couples challenging the 2009 constitutional amendment, said the group’s presence wasn’t going to affect the way Zabel ultimately rules.
“This is about the law, and attempts to encourage courts to base decisions on something other than the law are generally completely irrelevant,” she said. “We are confident in the strength of our legal arguments.”
State laws banning gay marriage are being tested nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court last summer struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.
Attorney Jeff Cohen, a partner with Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami also representing the plaintiffs, urged Zabel to fast-track the lawsuit, saying it affects the civil rights of numerous Floridians.
“It’s not appropriate to hold off on this case with so many people affected,” he said.
The couples are suing Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin for refusing to issue marriage licenses. His attorneys have said the clerk is just following the law and is neutral on the issue.
Attorney Eileen Mehta, representing Ruvin, said Zabel should wait for filings in two Tallahassee federal cases challenging the ban to see the state’s position and have a true adversarial position to weigh against the claims of the plaintiffs.
Mehta said her motion to abate the lawsuit was premature and Ruvin is now seeking only a temporary stay.
“We have no position. We have no position on the constitutionality,” said Mehta, a partner with Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami.
But Cohen said the state attorney general’s office refused an invitation to be a party in the case.
“In essence, the state has decided not to defend this claim,” he said.
Cohen told Zabel if she wants to see an adversarial viewpoint to his clients’ claims, then litigation challenging other states’ ban on gay marriage could be accessed.
Zabel said civil cases go forward all the time without advocacy from a defendant and 60 days may not change the circumstances for Ruvin.
Mehta said an exception should be made because the case involves civil rights and constitutionality.
Ruvin’s attorneys have said the constitutional question is better addressed in Tallahassee federal court. The two lawsuits challenging the ban were consolidated before U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle. That litigation was filed by same-sex couples who got married out of state and want Florida to recognize their unions.
Zabel has been under pressure from conservative groups to grant the motion to abate. The groups, which agree with Ruvin, maintain finding the law unconstitutional would reject the voter mandate and the rights of states to define a marriage.
Miami attorney Marianne Salazar, who hosted a Christian Family Coalition Florida event at her home, initially filed to run against Zabel but bowed out before last week’s filing deadline.
The group has sought to intervene in the Miami-Dade action as a third party. A similar request was made in the federal cases by the Florida Family Policy Council but was denied by Hinkle last month.