RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court usually saves its biggest decisions until the end of its term in June, but today, on its first day in session for its new term, the court dropped a big one that stunned the legal world. It refused to take any of the appeals pending on lower court rulings allowing gay marriage. Many states had seen the bans overturned by federal courts in recent years, and opponents of gay marriage looked to the Supreme Court to reverse those decisions. Today, the court said it would not do so this year, and the temporary stays on a lower court rulings were lifted. So in effect, today's refusal to hear appeals on gay marriage means the bans on gay marriage have been struck down - at least in the 19 states covered by lower court decisions so far. It also sends a powerful signal to other federal courts that the Supreme Court lacks a majority to reverse decisions that favor the permission of gay marriage. NPR's legal affairs reporter Nina Totenberg has been at the court this morning; she joins us from there. So, Nina, more details on exactly what the court did today?
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, the court said it will not review these decisions by three Courts of Appeals - there were seven cases, five states, three appeals courts. In all three, they struck down bans on same-sex marriage and the states in those cases appealed to the Supreme Court. And everybody thought that they would take at least one or two of these, that they might hold it and wait until they see if another appeals court ruled the other way. They didn't do that. They said, no, we're not going to hear any of these cases. And that means that the lower court ruling stands, and that means in all of those states people can get married and I'll give you the rundown. You know, in some of those circuits they include states that have legalized gay marriage. So there are 12 states that do not have gay marriage now that will now get it, six in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals - Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming - four the Fourth Circuit - North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia - two in the Seventh Circuit - Indiana and Wisconsin. And the other states in those circuits had already legalized gay marriage. So, you know, it is conceivable that later this year some other appeals court will say gay marriage - bans on gay marriage are legal. And that case will then get appealed to Supreme Court by the losers, by the gay marriage advocates. It's conceivable the court would take the case because then there would be a conflict in the circuits, and that's what the Supreme Court most often does is resolve conflicts in the circuit. But I really can't imagine that the court would be letting tens of thousands of people get married and then sort of say just kidding. So what it much more looks like is Justice Kennedy, who is clearly the fifth vote in this case, his was the swing vote in the cases a couple of years ago. That this will drive up the numbers - this will drive up the numbers of states that now will have gay marriage, and pretty soon it'll be a majority of the states. And then when it comes to the Supreme Court again, whether it's later this year, or next year, or the year after, or maybe never, the court will say, well, a majority of the country has gay marriage and the world hasn't come to an end.
MARTIN: Did this decision come as a surprise, Nina?
TOTENBERG: You can't imagine what the press room looks like. It looks like a bomb went off. (Laughter). I mean, and then there were - I have to tell you that were problems this morning in the way that the list was distributed, and there were pages missing, so we weren't sure for a few minutes whether they denied all of the cases. Now we're sure, and it's quite a story. It's quite a curve ball.
MARTIN: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reporting on the Supreme Court's decision, refusing to take any of the appeals pending on lower court rulings allowing gay marriage. Thanks so much, Nina.
TOTENBERG: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.