California Waits on Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Decision

The court has several options regarding Prop 8, including a decision to issue no ruling at all

By Jonathan Lloyd
|  Tuesday, Jun 4, 2013  |  Updated 8:48 AM EDT
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Prop 8 Decision in Hands of Supreme Court

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Eric Breese (L) of Rochester, New York, joins fellow George Washington University students and hundreds of others to rally outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in a case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) March 27, 2013.

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A long-awaited ruling on the legality of California's Prop 8 might be handed down this month in what would be the U.S. Supreme Court's first decision on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Full Coverage: California's Prop 8 | How the Supreme Court Might Rule | Timeline of Key Events

The Justices considered arguments from attorneys representing Prop 8 supporters and opponents in March. The hearing came after the Supreme Court granted in December the review of Prop 8 — approved by California voters in November 2008 — and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, also argued before the court in March.

The Court has several options regarding Prop 8, including a decision to issue no ruling at all. Decisions on Prop 8 and DOMA are expected later this month after the Court did not issue a ruling during its Monday session.

The ban could be upheld or struck down in a ruling that applies to California or a broader decision that applies to all states. The court also could determine that state ballot sponsors had no legal right or standing to defend Prop 8 in federal court.

How that decision would impact the status of same-sex marriages in California is unclear. After the hearings in March, several Justrices expressed doubt that the case should be before the court and suggested the case could be dismissed with no ruling, according to the Associated Press.

Nine states — Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington — and Washington D.C. allow same-sex marriages.

Minnesota, Rhode Island and Delaware have approved same-sex marriage legislation, but laws in those states have yet to go into effect. 

The Justices considered arguments regarding a ruling by a San Francisco-based appeals court that struck down the voter-approved ban. The court ruled the state could not take away the same-sex marriage right granted by the state Supreme Court before the 2008 election.

But the debate stretches back years through court cases and elections, including the March 2000 approval of Prop 22, which defined marriage in California as between a man and a woman. That law was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in May 2008, and an estimated 18,000 same-sex couples were married during a brief window before Prop 8's approval in the November election that year.

California's same-sex marriage ban was left in effect during the lengthy appeals process that followed. The legal battle included a landmark 2010 same-sex marriage trial in which Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled the ban unconstitutional. Walker said the law "both unconstitutionally burdens the exercise of the fundamental right to marry and creates an irrational classification on the basis of sexual orientation."

After appeals by Prop 8 supporters who said voters should not be invalidated "based on just one judge's opinion," a San Francisco court ruled in a 2-1 decision in November 2012 that the Walker's ruling properly interpreted the U.S. Constitution. The court ruled that the ban's "only effect was to take away that important and legally significant designation."

As attorneys argued over the issue in court, public attitudes toward same-sex marriage shifted. In 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In a poll conducted in March 2013, 49 percent of Americans said they support same-sex marriage.

A second case before the high court challenges the Defense of Marriage Act — also known as DOMA. The act blocks federal recognition of same-sex couples in states where they are allowed to marry.

President Barack Obama called the law enacted in 1996 unconstitutional. Arguments in the DOMA case are scheduled for Wednesday.

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