By Juan Carlos Llorca and Russell Contreras
LAS CRUCES — Seven couples were waiting outside when the Doña Ana County courthouse opened Thursday and more from across New Mexico and Texas were expected to flock to the border town as the country clerk for a second day was granting marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Neither Republican Gov. Susana Martinez nor Democratic Attorney General Gary King indicated they planned to do anything to try to halt the practice as cases testing the legality of same-sex marriage work their way through the state Supreme Court.
But officials were bracing for yet more litigation in light of Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins’ surprise decision to allow the marriages.
“This is likely to spark yet another court case in New Mexico on this issue and again, that’s why the governor has said voters should settle this issue — not courts or politicians,” said Enrique Knell, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez.
Ellins began issuing same-sex marriage licenses Wednesday after he said his review of state law allowed him to do so. A total of 42 were issued, compared to four to five issued to heterosexual couples on an average day. Fifteen had already been issued Thursday before 10 a.m.
Doña Ana County Chief Deputy Clerk Mario Jimenez says couples came from Los Lunas, Santa Fe, Alamogordo and Carlsbad, and at least one couple was expected from Lubbock, Texas.
Among those who got married Wednesday were Linda Montoya and Catherine Martinez. Montoya said she asked her partner to get married when they were vacationing in Hawaii in 2008, but said Martinez refused.
“She said, why get married? It wouldn’t be legal back home,” Montoya recalled as she went through both their purses trying to come up with the $25 in cash the Doña Ana County Clerk’s office charges for a marriage license.
They moved quickly when they heard the county had started issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.
“She came home from work at 4:30 and at 4:45 we said let’s go,” Montoya said. They arrived about five minutes before the office closed and were married by Jess C. Williams, who is both a county employee and minister of the Universal Life Church, in a meeting room at the clerk’s office.
“It’s nice to be out of the closet. It’s nice to be able to live our lives like everybody else does. It’s nice to be acknowledged as a couple,” said Montoya. Not only that, her wife interrupted, “It’s knowing that we can have same benefits as any other couple.”
Although King earlier this year advised county clerks against issuing same-sex licenses, the attorney general said Wednesday he had no plans to challenge the move by Ellins or any other county clerks who might allow the practice.
King said Wednesday that “we feel like our position that the law is unconstitutional presents a barrier to us from bringing any action.” Still, he warned that marriage licenses issued by county clerks could become invalid if the state Supreme Court later rules that same-sex marriage is not allowed.
Ellins said he had been considering issuing the licenses since June, when King released a position paper saying state laws don’t allow same-sex marriage, but that King thinks those laws are unconstitutional.
“One of the first couples that came in today said they had been waiting 31 years. Another couple says they’ve been waiting 43 years. It’s time to stop waiting,” Ellis said. “It’s been a happy office. Lots of happy people,” he added.
“More than a happy office, it’s been a gay office,” said Victor Villlapando-Saenz. He had just been married to his partner, Nico, and couldn’t stop smiling.
County and city officials around the country have taken it upon themselves in recent years to issue same-sex licenses, with one of the first and most highly publicized cases in San Francisco in 2004. The city issued the licenses for about a month before being ordered by courts to stop. The marriages were eventually invalidated. But gay marriage is now legal in that state.
Doña Ana County became the first county in New Mexico to actively issue same-sex licenses since a Sandoval County clerk issued 64 licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid soon declared the licenses were invalid and a court later ordered the clerk to stop.