4th Circuit Civil Rights Law News - U.S. Fourth Circuit
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It's been less than a month since the Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments in Bostic, the gay marriage appeal, and the panel's decision can't come fast enough. Of course, even once that arrives, there will inevitably be an en banc petition, and then, perhaps an appeal to the Supreme Court, if one of the other circuit courts' cases doesn't arrive first.

The importance of the decision can't be understated -- the Fourth Circuit panel, and perhaps an en banc panel, will determine the fate of marriage throughout Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina. (Indeed, the district courts in West Virginia, and in North Carolina, put those cases on hold pending the Bostic decision.)

With so much at stake, you might be curious: who's deciding the case?

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Though the Tenth Circuit got there first, yesterday's Fourth Circuit oral arguments in Virginia's gay marriage ban appeal were highly anticipated. The Tenth is handing appeals from Utah and Oklahoma, while the Fourth Circuit is debating Virginia's ban. If a split emerges between these circuits, or the other circuits with same-sex marriage appeals, a Supreme Court showdown could be (okay, almost certainly is) on the horizon.

How did the arguments go? If the judges' comments were any indication, the court is like the rest of this country: confused and conflicted.

We have a couple of updates on ongoing Fourth Circuit litigation for you today.

In the Virginia same-sex marriage battle, oral arguments have been extended to an hour, rather than the typical 30 minutes, to account for the intervening parties.

And last week, the Fourth Circuit denied relief to Lavabit, the private email service that was held in contempt for failing to comply with a court order. The secure email service chose to shut down rather than comply with an order that would have violated its users' privacy. Then the company turned its eyes toward the courts, hoping that the Fourth Circuit would nix the order. Unfortunately, procedural gaffes doomed the company's claims.

What do you think of when you hear the name GM? If you've been watching news, you're thinking faulty ignition switches and rolling death traps, even though only thirty-four cars, out of millions recalled, have actually crashed as a result of recalled switches.

Of course, that defect is real. In the case of Company Doe, the report of an allegedly unsafe product, which was linked to a child's death, was labeled "materially inaccurate" by a Maryland federal judge in 2012. He then sealed the case files, hoping to avoid unfairly damaging the company's reputation by releasing the report.

Noble intentions, but with constitutional implications, it seems. The Fourth Circuit yesterday reversed the trial court's ruling and ordered all case files unsealed and unredacted, though likely appeals mean that the public won't hear much about Company Doe or the allegedly defective product any time soon.

Last week, we reported that a parallel challenge to Virginia's gay marriage ban was being put on hold pending the Fourth Circuit's decision in Bostic v. Schaefer. The Bostic case was the first to be decided, and once the Fourth Circuit issues a ruling, will bind the rest of the state, as well as the rest of the circuit.

It's unsurprising news, then, that a district court in North Carolina appears to be holding a challenge to that state's barely three-year-old ban on gay marriage until after the Fourth Circuit rules. The American Civil Liberties Union, however, is suing to speed up the process, arguing that their clients' health issues make urgency a must.

Parallel challenges to Virginia's ban on gay marriage have, for all practical purposes, been consolidated, with Bostic v. Schaefer being the caption to watch over the next few months.

The last time we checked in on Virginia's same-sex marriage battle, the parties from a pending distirct court case, Harris v. Rainey, were seeking to intervene in the Bostic case, over the objections of the plaintiffs in that case. The request was granted, and the Harris plaintiffs will have their day at the Fourth Circuit a bit earlier than expected.

That also means that their day in district court will be delayed, per an order from Judge Michael Urbanski of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Meantime, the briefing in the Bostic case has already begun, with two county clerks submitting their opening briefs in defense of Virginia's law.

While a combined expedited appeal is pending in the Tenth Circuit regarding Oklahoma and Utah's bans on gay marriage, the Fourth Circuit will be looking over opening briefs and the combined appendix. The briefing schedule for the appeal is out, and briefing will occur through April and May, with no hearing yet scheduled.

Meantime, Lambda Legal and a class action lawsuit challenging Virginia's gay marriage ban is also pushing its way thorough the lower court. Attorneys for the class are seeking to intervene in the present set of consolidated cases, as the outcome of the present case -- which involves four plaintiffs -- could bind the entire class of more than 14,000 same-sex couples.

Last week's decision, holding Virginia's ban on same-sex marriage to be undeclarationable unconstitutional, got a lot of attention, and rightfully so -- it was the first of its kind in the South, and followed similar decisions in two conservative Tenth Circuit states. But Virginia's battle isn't the only pending gay marriage litigation pending in the Fourth Circuit.

We've already talked abut West Virginia's lawsuit, which is in the early stages and is still gathering plaintiffs, but there are also parties challenging North and South Carolinas' bans. This raises an interesting question: how will the Virginia decision impact its fellow Fourth Circuit states?

Gary Wall is an inmate housed at Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) in Pound, Virginia. As a member of the Nation of Islam, he observed Ramadan in 2008 and 2009. Prison officials provide special meals to accommodate Muslims' sunrise-to-sunset fasting.

After half the prison population signed up for Ramadan in 2009, the prison adopted a special policy requiring those wishing to participate to prove the sincerity of their beliefs by providing physical evidence, such as a Quran, a prayer rug, or some other physical article of faith. Unfortunately for Wall, the Virginia Department of Corrections had lost all of his belongings when he was transferred to ROSP.

Despite producing a court judgment as proof of the lost items, documents showing that he was receiving religion-compliant meals throughout the year, and proof of his past participation in Ramadan, the prison refused to add him to the list.

You may have heard about the rash of "Choose Life" license plate disputes clogging up the dockets in courts across this fine nation. States pass laws that allow special interest groups to have vanity plates created with their logo, charge a premium to drivers who wish to display the message, and split the revenue.

And then someone wants to say something that the majority doesn't like. In Virginia, it was a battle over a censored Confederate Flag logo. In South Carolina, it was a "Choose Life" plate, with no pro choice counterpart. Ditto for North Carolina, which made a bunch of unconvincing arguments that flopped in the face of binding circuit precedent, as well as the near-universal "Choose Life" opinions of other circuit courts.