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Over the next two weeks, a federal appeals court in Denver will hear challenges to state marriage laws from Utah and Oklahoma.

The two hearings kick off what the New York Times has termed the “marriage spring” -- a wave of hearings on the subject taking place in circuit courts across the country.

Ned Flaherty curates news and produces research about LGBT rights for Marriage Equality USA, an advocacy group trying to legalize same-sex marriage. Flaherty tracks every gay marriage case in the country, and says that although it's impossible to know how the appeals court will rule, the track record for cases involving state marriage laws indicates that it will come down in favor of the plaintiffs appealing for the ability to marry in Utah and Oklahoma.

Flaherty has also earned a reputation for accurately predicting when states will legalize same-sex marriage. A year ago he predicted the next 12 states to legalize same-sex marriage. Today, eight of the 12 have done just that, and two more he predicts will soon. He sees Colorado changing its laws to allow same-sex marriage by 2016, either through one of the active court cases challenging Colorado's ban on same-sex marriage, or through a ballot initiative that year.

But despite the recent decisions striking down state laws that define marriage strictly between a man and a woman, which have come recently in Virginia and Kentucky in addition to Utah and Oklahoma, some observers say predictions of continuing decisions in favor of gay marriage aren't nearly so certain. 
John Eastman teaches at the Chapman University Law School in Southern California and is chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, a group advocating against gay marriage legalization. That group supported Proposition 8, which temporarily made same-sex marriage illegal in California. He says the federal judges that decided the Virginia, Kentucky, Utah and Oklahoma cases ignored legal precedent going back more than 40 years. That precedent, he says, gives states the right to set their own laws on marriage. And he says that precedent continued with last summer’s historic decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which specifically did not rule on state definitions of marriage.
"It was a very deferential decision to state policy judgement about what their purposes of marriage were gonna be, and a very strong defense of federalism," he says, meaning states get to choose their own policies on certain issues, including marriage. Eastman thinks the federal appeals courts will more carefully consider the precedent, and therefore he’s more dubious than Ned Flaherty that appeals courts will continue the wave of decisions supporting gay marriage.

Ultimately, Eastman and Flaherty agree -- as do other legal scholars following the issue -- that one or more of the cases heard this spring will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Eastman says, "All the lawyers in all the little cases are desperately trying for it to be theirs." He adds, "They’re all gonna land on the Supreme Court’s docket, so they may have five or six of them up there from which to choose before [the Supreme Court] decides which one is going to be the lead case."