LITTLE ROCK — A judge’s decision to strike down all Arkansas laws preventing gay couples from marrying starts a new chapter in the already contentious relationship between the state’s Legislature and its courts.
An effort by some legislators to urge the state Supreme Court to overturn Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza’s ruling against the state’s gay marriage ban was the opening salvo in a months-long political fight that will be waged alongside the legal one over whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Part of that fight includes a handful of lawmakers, and the state’s former governor, floating the idea of pushing for the judge’s removal over the ruling.
Hours before the state Supreme Court temporarily put Piazza’s decision on hold Friday, a resolution urging the court to keep gay marriage illegal and invalidate licenses already issued to hundreds of same-sex couples faltered before a legislative panel. The non-binding proposal failed on a procedural move before the Arkansas Legislative Council, falling shy of the votes needed to be considered by the panel.
"Short of an impeachment proceeding, this is the first thing the legislature can do to show our disapproval," said Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, who introduced the resolution.
The proposal didn’t specifically mention impeachment, an idea floated by a handful of Republican lawmakers and endorsed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee. In a post on his political action committee website, the Republican ex-governor said Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe should call a special session to impeach Piazza.
Huckabee and other critics of Piazza have said his ruling undermined the will of voters, who approved by a 3-1 margin the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Piazza’s final order also struck down any other state laws banning couples from marrying.
"The dangerous precedent of elected officials allowing one single member of the judicial branch to become Lord God of law is dangerous and unconstitutional," Huckabee wrote in his post last week.
Huckabee was governor when the ban passed and supported its passage. He said in a call-in radio show in March 2004 that gay marriages constituted "lawlessness."
The threat to impeach Piazza over his ruling is another echo of the 1957 school desegregation crisis that has already cast a heavy shadow over Arkansas’ gay marriage fight. Then-Gov. Orval Faubus called on Congress to impeach the judge who ordered the integration of Little Rock Central High School.
The closest Rapert’s resolution came to addressing impeachment was language calling for the Legislature to find ways to prevent "judicial activism," wording that worried even Democrats who said they support the gay marriage ban.
"As a legislator, I don’t like the judiciary interfering in legislative issues. Consequently, I don’t think as a legislator I should try to rule what the judicial system does," said Rep. David Hillman, D-Almyra. "We’ve got a country ruled by law. We need to let the laws work out."
Rifts between the Legislature and the courts are nothing new. During the Lake View school funding fight, some lawmakers openly complained about the court rulings and said the court was overstepping its authority. Decisions chipping away parts of the state’s tort reform efforts prompted similar complaints, and even led to a failed effort put on the ballot a proposal that would have given the Legislature power to write court rules for civil cases.
But the focus on Piazza with the resolution and impeachment talk has some Republicans worried such moves would create an even deeper rift between the two branches. Outgoing House Speaker Davy Carter, a Republican, joined with Democrats in blocking the resolution last week.
"Whether or not our state’s constitutional amendment runs afoul of the United States Constitution is a question for our highest court," Carter said in a statement released after the vote. "Judicial intimidation by the legislative branch is not appropriate in this instance or any other."