SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday decided to tackle the same-sex marriage issue head on, agreeing to review the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 and another case involving the federal government’s ban on benefits for same-sex couples.
In brief orders released after its closed-door conference, the Supreme Court decided to review a federal appeals court’s ruling earlier this year striking down Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
As a result, the court would rule on the case by the end of its term in June. In the meantime, same-sex marriage remains on hold in California.
The high court also agreed to review a federal appeals court ruling finding the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. That case involved a New York woman who was forced to pay estate taxes after her spouse died because the federal government refused to recognize their marriage under DOMA.
Proposition 8 supporters were pleased the Supreme Court agreed to hear their arguments.
“Every one of the numerous legal steps we have taken for the past four years has been in anticipation of this moment,” said Andrew Pugno, general counsel for ProtectMarriage.com. “We are delighted the nation’s highest court will decide whether to uphold the will of more than 7 million Californians who voted to preserve the unique definition of marriage as only between one man and one woman.”
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who has helped challenge the law, said it was an important step in the civil rights battle.
“In taking up the Prop. 8 and DOMA cases, the Supreme Court has signaled its readiness to consider the civil rights issue of our time,” he said.
In the Proposition 8 case, the Supreme Court agreed to review the full scope of the challenge to the law, which gay and lesbian couples argue denies them equal rights to marry. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the law unconstitutional because it stripped away same-sex couples’ previous right to marry in California.
But the justices also indicated they will review a second issue in the Proposition 8 case: whether backers of the marriage ban have a legal right to defend the law on appeal when California’s governor and attorney general have refused to do so.
If the Supreme Court finds Proposition 8 backers do not have so-called “standing” to press the appeal, the 9th Circuit decision would remain intact and the justices would not have to address the central legal issues. That would enable same-sex couples to legal marry in California.
Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker first struck down Proposition 8 in August 2010. Since that time, both California Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Kamala Harris have refused to defend the law because they consider it unconstitutional.
Both the California Supreme Court and 9th Circuit found that Proposition 8 backers should be allowed to appeal the case. But the Supreme Court is now revisiting that question, which centers on whether Proposition 8 backers have the legal right to defend a state law without the support of the state.