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Topics In the News
New Mexico County Clerk Issues Marriage Licenses to Same-sex Couples
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 08/21/13
Last updated on: 08/21/13
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In a press release, Lynn Ellins, County Clerk of New Mexico's Doña Ana County, announced on August 19, 2013 that his office has begun issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples. Soon after his announcement, the first couple to receive a marriage license wed on the lawn of the county government center in Las Cruces.

Ellins said that he has been considering issuing such licenses since last June, when New Mexico Attorney General Gary King issued a position paper stating that New Mexico's ban on issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples is unconstitutional. Since then, the Attorney General--in a legal brief to the New Mexico Supreme Court--has refused to defend the ban and has asked the Supreme Court to declare New Mexico's prohibition of same-gender marriage unconstitutional under the state's constitution.

On August 16, 2013, the New Mexico Supreme Court declined to issue a ruling sought by attorneys for same-gender couples seeking marriage licenses from the county clerks in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties. Instead, the Supreme Court sent these matters back to the lower courts for an initial review on the merits.

"That means it could be many months or years before the matter is resolved," Ellins said. "In the meantime, I am mindful that I took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the State of New Mexico as Doña Ana County Clerk. I am an attorney, and I have read the AG's opinion, and I find it to be sound. After careful review of New Mexico's laws it is clear that the state's marriage statutes are gender neutral and do not expressly prohibit Doña Ana County from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples."

He added, "Any further denial of marriage licenses to these couples violates the United States and New Mexico Constitution and the New Mexico Human Rights Act. Doña Ana County is upholding New Mexico law by issuing these marriage licenses, and I see no reason to make committed couples in Doña Ana County wait another minute to marry."

On March 23, 2013, Ellins himself requested an opinion from the Attorney General on the issue, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News. His request followed the March 19 release of a legal memorandum crafted by Santa Fe City Attorney Geno Zamora asserting that marriage equality is already legal in the State of New Mexico and citing specific language in both the New Mexico Constitution and the state's marriage statutes to support his position.

At that time, Ellins pointed out that same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal are recognized under New Mexico law when those couples move to New Mexico. He said that the next logical step is for county clerks in New Mexico to be able to begin issuing the licenses for legal marriages within New Mexico.

Ellins was first elected County Clerk in 2008 and reelected in 2012. He is a former Chief Deputy Secretary of State of Colorado. He was educated at Columbia University, from which he holds both an undergraduate and a law degree. A Democrat, he is 76 years old, married, and the father of two children.

Ellins' decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples is similar to that of D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, who announced on July 24, 2013 that his office was prepared to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite state law limiting marriage to different-sex couples only.

In making that announcement, Hanes declared, "I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law."

Hanes's decision came after Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced that she would not defend the state law against a challenge in federal court.

Almost 150 licenses have been issued to same-sex couples by Montgomery County, Pennsylvania since Hanes's decision. The Governor of Pennsylvania has filed suit against Hanes, asking a state court to order him to cease and desist. However, no such order has yet been issued.

Soon after Ellins made his announcment, his office began issuing licenses. The first same-sex couple to receive their license, Sarah Finke and Heather Oesterreich, were wed on the steps of the Doña Ana County government center in Las Cruces.

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