WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. Supreme Court, sidestepping the actual issue of whether states can ban same-sex marriage, issued a technical ruling on Proposition 8 that paves the way for gay marriage to resume in California. Moments earlier the court also struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional. Both decisions were 5-4.
In the Proposition 8 case, the high court majority ruled that Protect Marriage, the coalition behind the constitutional amendment, had no legal standing to appeal the case. Standing is a legal provision that requires a party to have a personal stake in the proceedings. Protect Marriage took up the appeal mantle after Gov. Jerry Brown and other top elected officials refused to defend the matterand the will of votersin court.
The Supreme Court's decision contradicts an earlier one by the California Supreme Court, which said Protect Marriage had legal standing since the state refused to represent the people in court. By not allowing Protect Marriage, the proposition's authors, to proceed with the appeal, the California high court essentially said the government would have veto power over the will of California voters.
California voters approved Proposition 8, which declares marriage as only between one man and one woman, in 2000 by a 52-48 margin.
By denying standing today, the Supreme Court vacated the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, saying the appeal should never have been brought forward. That means the original ruling at the district court level stands.
"We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. "We decline to do so for the first time here."
His ruling was also signed by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan.
The original court decision, issued in August 2010 by then-U.S. District Judge Vaughan Walker, struck down Proposition 8 saying that same-sex relationships are "consistent with the core of the history, tradition and practice of marriage in the United States.
Andy Pugno, general counsel for Protect Marriage, acknowledged the mixed implications of the ruling.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' misguided decision that sought to invalidate Proposition 8," Pugno. "For the more than seven million Californians who have seen their vote stripped away from them, little by little, over the course of five years, that decision is gratifying.
"While it is unfortunate that the court's ruling does not directly resolve questions about the scope of the trial court's order against Prop 8, we will continue to defend Prop 8 and seek its enforcement until such time as there is a binding statewide order that renders Prop 8 unenforceable."
He also thanked supporters for their faithfulness during the five-year court battle.
"We are also especially grateful and humbled by the consistent prayers and support of traditional marriage supporters everywhere throughout this long and difficult case," Pugno said.
Supporters of gay marriage lauded the Supreme Court decision, calling it a "day for celebration."
"We have said from the beginning that the proponents of Prop. 8 couldn't demonstrate a single way they would be harmed by loving same-sex couples marrying in California," said John O'Connor, Equality California executive director. "Marriage will be restored imminently and we look forward to decisive leadership from our elected officials in reinstating marriage for all people in every community across the state. Today is a day for celebration."
Immediately upon the ruling, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state Department of Health to advise all counties to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as soon as the 9th Circuit Court lifts an existing stay blocking them.
"After years of struggle, the U.S. Supreme Court has made same-sex marriage a reality in California," Brown said.
Austin R. Nimocks, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which assisted Protect Marriage in its legal defense of Proposition 8, said supporters of the measure will remain vigilant.
"Despite the Supreme Court's decision, the debate over marriage has only just begun. The court's decision does not silence the voices of Americans. Marriagethe union of husband and wifewill remain timeless, universal, and special, particularly because children need mothers and fathers. This has been the experience of diverse cultures and faiths throughout history, including the American experience, and that will not change. Americans will continue advancing the truth about marriage between a man and a woman and why it matters for children, civil society, and limited government."
In the federal DOMA case, the justices declared the federal law was unconstitutional because it created a "second-tier" of marriages by disallowing benefits enjoyed by heterosexual marriage.
"DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented, with Scalia suggesting the case should've been decided by the states.
The ruling only impacts those states that allow same-sex marriage.
"DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others," the majority ruling read. "The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity."