On May 20, 2014, Federal Judge John E. Jones III ruled in the case of Whitewood v. Wolf "that Pennsylvania's Marriage Laws violate" the United States Constitution. As a result, Pennsylvania marriage laws defining a marriage as between a man and a woman cannot be enforced. Therefore, "same-sex couples who seek to marry in Pennsylvania may do so, and already married same-sex couples will be recognized as such in the Commonwealth."
In his decision, Judge Jones compared this issue to racial segregation and stated that like the term "separate" has thankfully faded into history, and only "equal" remains (referencing Brown v. Board of Education), in future generations the label "same-sex marriage" will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by "marriage." He further stated, "We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history."
As a result of the ruling, same-sex couples can now apply for marriage licenses. As with all marriage licenses, there is a three day waiting period between when the license is issued and when couples can be married, unless a judge waives the waiting period. Therefore, for those couples who obtained their marriage licenses on Tuesday, weddings could begin as soon as Friday.
Philadelphia was the first local county to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses within hours of the Tuesday decision. The day after the decision, Bucks County quickly followed suit and began issuing licenses. Montgomery County is in limbo as the register of wills previously decided to issue same-sex marriage licenses following a Supreme Court decision (Windsor v. United States). Pending litigation prevents the county from issuing same-sex marriage licenses until further order of court.
Governor Tom Corbett is expected to release a statement regarding the Whitewood decision. Attorney General Kathleen Kane previously refused to defend the law stating that it was unconstitutional. As a result, the governor hired private counsel to defend the law. If Governor Corbett decides to appeal the decision, it is possible that the issuance of the same-sex marriage licenses and the weddings could be halted pending a decision in the appeal.
As a family law attorney, it was difficult to turn away potential clients because we simply could not help them in the context of the legal system. Due to this decision, the domestic relations courts are now accessible to same-sex married couples. It is important for same-sex couples who now have the opportunity to marry to consider the planning vehicles that were previously unavailable to them, such as prenuptial agreements. Also, same-sex couples who were married in other states who could not file for divorce and be afforded the same protections as other married couples in Pennsylvania, since their marriage was not recognized, can now file for divorce. If you are contemplating a same-sex marriage or separation/divorce, please call our office to set up a consultation during which we will answer your questions and provide additional information.