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Justice: Arkansas court members voted on narrow portion of gay marriage case

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — The Arkansas Supreme Court voted on a narrow part of the state's case over gay marriage last month but only planned on issuing that decision if the nation's highest court didn't legalize same-sex marriage, a justice said Thursday.

Sixteen days before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down gay marriage bans nationwide, state justices voted June 10 on a state-specific portion of Pulaski County Judge Chris Piazza's May 2014 decision striking down the gay marriage ban, which said voters can't approve an amendment that conflicts with other rights guaranteed in the state constitution, Justice Rhonda Wood said.

Wood declined to say how the court was preparing to rule, but said it only planned to weigh in on the state issue if the U.S. court didn't legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

"The court by the time it was able to conference decided not to rule on the federal issue and wait for the U.S. Supreme Court," Wood told The Associated Press.

Wood first disclosed the vote in an interview published Thursday morning with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette political columnist John Brummett. Her comments are a departure for the court, which traditionally doesn't discuss what happens during deliberations.

"I am amazed and question the appropriateness of her feeling the need to defend herself," said Cheryl Maples, an attorney representing the gay couples who had challenged Arkansas' ban.

Wood said she believed it's appropriate to talk about to talk about the court's process.

"Most courts do talk about their process," she said Thursday. "I think it's helpful for the people to understand how they work."

Chief Justice Jim Hannah did not immediately return a message left at his office Thursday morning. A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge declined to comment.

Piazza had ruled the 2004 voter-approved amendment and earlier state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman violated the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions.

State justices dismissed the state's appeal hours after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, but didn't weigh in on the couples' argument that the 2004 voter-approved amendment violated rights guaranteed elsewhere in the state constitution. Wood said that issue wasn't "well-developed" before the court.

"It really wasn't about same-sex marriage," Wood said. "It was about the limitations on the voters when they amend the constitution."

Wood, who took office in January, had been at the center of a dispute that had sidelined the gay marriage case over which justices should participate in the proceedings. The state Supreme Court ruled in May that Wood, and not Special Justice Robert McCorkindale, who was appointed by former Gov. Mike Beebe last year and who heard oral arguments in November, should participate in the case.

Hannah and Justice Paul Danielson had criticized other members of the court for creating a spinoff case on who should participate, accusing other members of the court of unnecessarily delaying a ruling on gay marriage.


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PHOTO: FILE -  In this file photo taken  Nov. 19, 2014, supporters of Arkansas' law banning same sex marriage, top, hold a rally as a protestor waves a rainbow flag at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. The Arkansas Supreme Court voted on a narrow part of the state's case over gay marriage in June, 2015, but only planned on issuing that decision if the nation's highest court didn't legalize same-sex marriage, a justice said Thursday, July 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
FILE - In this file photo taken Nov. 19, 2014, supporters of Arkansas' law banning same sex marriage, top, hold a rally as a protestor waves a rainbow flag at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. The Arkansas Supreme Court voted on a narrow part of the state's case over gay marriage in June, 2015, but only planned on issuing that decision if the nation's highest court didn't legalize same-sex marriage, a justice said Thursday, July 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
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