Why Pennsylvania’s GOP governor is relenting on gay marriage

Gov. Tom Corbett (R) now says he will not appeal Tuesday's ruling striking down Pennsylvania's anti-gay marriage laws. He cites legal reasoning, but his tough reelection battle probably played a role.

Matt Slocum/AP
Ashley Wilson (l.) and Lindsay Vandermay (r.) both 29, react after getting their marriage license at the Philadelphia Marriage Bureau in City Hall, May 20, in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania has become the 19th state to recognize same-sex marriage, following Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s decision Wednesday not to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s ban on such marriages.   

Governor Corbett is embroiled in a tough reelection battle, but he cited a legal rationale for deciding not to appeal US District Judge John Jones’s ruling issued Tuesday. In a statement, Corbett said he had “thoroughly reviewed” the judge’s opinion and concluded that the case was “extremely unlikely to succeed on appeal.”

“As a Roman Catholic, the traditional teaching of my faith has not w​​avered,” Corbett said. “I continue to maintain the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. My duties as governor require that I follow the laws as interpreted by the courts and make a judgment as to the likelihood of a successful appeal.”

Still, the politics of Corbett’s decision may be just as important as his legal reasoning. In January, 56 percent of Pennsylvania voters supported same-sex marriage, according to a survey by the Franklin & Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Pa.

“This takes an emotional issue out of the campaign,” says G. Terry Madonna, the poll’s director.

Corbett could face some pushback from his political base. The poll showed that only 35 percent of Republicans support gay marriage. But for most Republican voters in Pennsylvania, marriage is not the top issue, and most will vote for Corbett anyway. Corbett’s Democratic opponent in November, businessman Tom Wolf, supports gay marriage.

“Corbett has to assume his base says, ‘Wolf is a liberal Democrat, we’ve got to hang in with the governor or we’ll have a liberal Democrat,’ “ says Mr. Madonna.

Among independent voters in Pennsylvania, support for gay marriage is at 65 percent. Corbett is considered one of the most vulnerable GOP governors in the United States. Pennsylvania typically votes Democratic in presidential races, but can go either way in gubernatorial races.

On Monday, Oregon became the 18th state to allow same-sex marriage after a federal judge struck down that state’s ban and no state official stepped forward to file an appeal.

In contrast to Corbett’s decision in Pennsylvania, many other states are continuing to defend their marriage statutes.

Legally, it is not yet clear whether federal courts of appeals and perhaps, ultimately, the US Supreme Court will agree with the 11 federal judges who have struck down state laws banning or restricting same-sex marriages in the past six months.

A three-judge panel of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is deliberating whether to uphold or overturn rulings striking down state bans in Utah and Oklahoma.

In Richmond, Va., a three-judge panel is also examining a decision by a federal judge striking down Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.

Similar appeals have been filed or are expected to be filed with the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit, the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit, and the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit.

Had Governor Corbett filed an appeal in the Pennsylvania case, the issue would have gone to a three-judge panel at the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia.

The federal court system is designed to facilitate multiple opportunities for appellate judges to correct or affirm legal opinions issued by district judges. The appeals process helps crystallize issues and facilitates analysis from multiple perspectives across the country.

Gay marriage advocates praised the Pennsylvania governor’s decision to drop the case.

“Governor Corbett’s decision not to waste taxpayers’ money defending the indefensible denial of the freedom to marry even one day longer is the right decision for Pennsylvania, for families, and for the country,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, in a statement.

“This latest decision by a Republican governor not to try to keep gay couples from marrying is additional proof that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry,” he said.

In other marriage news on Wednesday, four same-sex couples filed suit in federal court in Great Falls, Mont., challenging restrictions on gay and lesbian marriages in that state.

The action left only two states with same-sex marriage bans that are not currently being challenged in court: North Dakota and South Dakota. They are among 31 states that passed state statutes or constitutional bans on same-sex marriages.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, has not yet commented on the lawsuit. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statement supporting the same-sex couples in their lawsuit.

“Montanans cherish our freedom and recognize the individual dignity of every one of us. The time has come for our state to recognize and celebrate – not discriminate against – two people who love one another, are committed to each other, and want to spend their lives together,” Governor Bullock said.

“I look forward to a future where all Montanans have the opportunity to marry the person they love, just as Lisa and I did almost 15 years ago. We are on the path to greater understanding and equality, and we will all be better for it.”

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