A fractured Supreme Court paved the way for same-sex marriages to resume throughout California on Wednesday, saying it did not have the authority to decide a case challenging that state's ban on gay and lesbian weddings.
The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, does not directly overturn the same-sex marriage ban California voters approved in 2008. Instead, Roberts, writing for an unusual coalition of justices, sent the question back to a federal district court in California, which had barred state officials from enforcing the law, known as Proposition 8.
Hours later, California Gov. Jerry Brown said he had ordered officials throughout the state to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Those marriages can resume as soon as a federal appeals court confirms that it has lifted an order blocking the lower-court decision from taking effect while it was being challenged, a step that is likely to be only a formality.
"After years of struggle, the U.S. Supreme Court today has made same-sex marriage a reality in California," Brown said.
Roberts was joined by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as three of the court's more liberal justices. They said backers of Proposition 8 did not have standing to challenge a lower court ruling that invalidated the law, effectively reinstating the lower court's decision.
"Because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the Ninth Circuit," Roberts wrote.
The decision came in the second of two resounding victories for they gay rights movement before the high court on Wednesday. In the first, justices invalidated a part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples from states that already permit gay marriage.
Advocates for same-sex marriage instantly hailed the two decisions as a huge victory. "Today's historic decisions put two giant cracks in the dark wall of discrimination that separates committed gay and lesbian couples from full equality," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Marriages in California are expected to begin again soon."
Conservatives, meanwhile, breathed a sigh of relief that the court did not go further. "While we are disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision to strike
down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the court today did not impose the sweeping nationwide redefinition of natural marriage that was sought," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the court's decision striking down DOMA, said in a dissent that the court should have weighed in on same-sex marriages, too. Joined by conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas and liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, he said the court's decision "fails to abide by precedent and misapplies basic principles of justiciability."
The California Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriages four years ago, and quickly about 18,000 couples tied the knot. That led opponents of same-sex marriage to demand a voter referendum outlawing gay marriage, which passed narrowly in November 2008.
A federal district court invalidated that law three years ago after state officials refused
to defend it in court. Backers of the ballot measure appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court decision and declared that the Constitution required California to recognize same-sex marriages.
The U.S. Supreme Court said Wednesday that the backers lacked legal standing both to bring that appeal and to pursue the case in front of the high court. Roberts wrote that federal courts are able to decide only an "actual case or controversy." Because Proposition 8's backers did not suffer a "a concrete and particularized injury" when the district court overturned the measure, they did not have standing to appeal the decision, he said.
"This is an essential limit on our power: It ensures that we act as judges, and do not engage in policymaking properly left to elected representatives," Roberts wrote.
The original lawsuit against Proposition 8, filed by a gay couple and a lesbian couple, had prevailed at both lower federal courts. The district court said the law violated the Constitution's equal protection clause because it was "premised on the belief that same-sex couples simply are not as good as opposite-sex couples." The appeals court ruled more narrowly that voters could not take away a right previously granted to the state's gays and lesbians.
Since then, after a string of successful state bans on same-sex marriage, a half dozen more states have legalized the practice: Maine, Maryland, Washington, Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota. Waiting in the wings are several others, from New Jersey to Hawaii.
Rather than remaining on the sidelines in the California debate, the Obama administration came out forcefully this year against the ban and helped to argue the case in court. It singled out California and several other states that allow civil unions or domestic partnerships, arguing they cannot deny the title of marriage.
Making the case for California's gay marriage proponents was Theodore Olson, the conservative former U.S. solicitor general who teamed up with liberal David Boies on the case. They were representing two couples: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, lesbian parents of four sons, and Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, a gay couple who want to marry and raise a family. Nearly all of them have been in court in recent weeks, anticipating a favorable decision.
Arguing in support of Proposition 8 was Charles Cooper, representing the original proponents of the referendum, who contend that marriage is based upon producing and raising children by a mother and father. They say forcing opponents to recognize same-sex marriages would infringe on their religious beliefs. And they say states and voters should be left alone to make their own decisions. Source