Justices to Meet Behind Closed Doors to Discuss Gay Marriage Cases

(Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

Before the Supreme Court justices even take the bench for the new court term on Oct. 6, they will meet behind closed doors and discuss petitions from five states concerning bans on gay marriage.

The so-called "long conference" occurs on Sept. 29, when the nine justices will discuss cert petitions that have gathered over the summer.

Although they are scheduled to discuss the marriage cases, the justices don't necessarily have to act immediately. Indeed, they could wait until other appeals courts across the country have ruled.

The behind-doors conversations at conferences are kept secret. No one else is allowed in the room - no secretaries, assistants or clerks. Should there be a knock on the door, Justice Elena Kagan, as the most junior justice on the court, must get up and respond.

"I have to hop up and open the inner door," Kagan said to laughter at a recent Harvard event. "Truly, if I don't do it, nobody will. If I don't do it, they'll just all stare at me: 'Elena, that was a knock on the door.' "

Before the Supreme Court are petitions from both sides of the issue in Virginia, Utah, Oklahoma, Indiana and Wisconsin. Three federal appeals courts have struck down state bans, but other cases are pending in other circuits.

It is hard to find a party involved in the gay marriage litigation that does not want the court to step in and make a final ruling on whether states can ban gay marriage. Even the challengers to the bans who won at the lower-court levels are asking the Supreme Court to step in to settle the question once and for all.