What Does the U.S. Supreme Court’s Prop 8 Ruling Mean?
Short answer: Marriage ceremonies for same sex couples can resume in California.
Now the long answer. . .
In 2004 San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples, and same sex couples began marrying in San Francisco. Those people and groups discontent with those marriages filed lawsuits to stop them. In 2008 the California Supreme Court upheld the validity of those marriages in its ruling in the In re Marriage Cases (2008) 43 Cal.4th 757.
Those people and groups discontent with the ruling in the In re Marriage Cases put Proposition 8 on the California ballot. Proposition 8 was passed by the California voters in 2008. By its passage Prop 8 amended the state constitution to add language that provides that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Prop 8 put an end to same sex marriages in California.
Those people and groups discontent with Prop 8 filed a lawsuit in the California courts challenging its legality under California law. In 2009 the California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8. Strauss v. Horton (2009) Cal. 4th 364. Pursuant to Strauss same sex marriages continue to be a no-no.
Those people and groups still discontent with Prop 8, and now also discontent with Strauss v. Horton, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court arguing that Prop 8 was unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. To be more precise, two same sex couples signed the lawsuit, and the named defendants were California’s Governor, attorney general, and other state and local officials responsible for enforcing California’s marriage laws. Those officials refused to defend against the lawsuit. However, the District Court did let other individuals and groups opposed to same sex marriage defend the lawsuit.
That Federal lawsuit went to trial before Judge Vaughn Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco. Judge Walker decided that Prop 8 was unconstitutional because it violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the United States Constitution. The District Court ruling prohibited California officials from enforcing Prop 8. Anticipating an appeal of his decision, Judge Walker’s ruling provided that implementation of his decision would be stayed as the case worked its way through the higher Federal courts. So, while Prop 8 was found unconstitutional, same sex marriage could not, for the time being, resume. You can read Judge Walker’s decision here.
Those people and groups discontent with Judge Walker’s Prop 8 ruling filed an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District. As at the District Court level, California’s Governor, attorney general, and other state and local officials responsible for enforcing California’s marriage laws did not participate in the appeal. Suffice it to say that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling makes everything the 9th Circuit did irrelevant.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing for a split court (5-4) Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion. It holds:
Because petitioners have not satisfied their burden to demonstrate standing to appeal the judgment of the District Court, the Ninth Circuit was without jurisdiction to consider the appeal. The judgment of the Ninth Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded with instruction to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
Roberts explains that the only people who could have filed an appeal were the California officials. They chose not to. The people who did file the appeal of Judge Walker’s decision do not fit the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of injured parties. Because they do not fit that definition they did not have standing to take an appeal to the 9th Circuit, and the 9th Circuit did not have the power to hear or rule on that appeal. The appeal is void, and Judge Walker’s District Court ruling controls.
Pursuant to Judge Walker’s ruling California officials can now resume issuing marriage licenses to same sex couple, and those same sex couple can get married in California.