The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday took a modest path to history in California, appearing to doom the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage and opening the door to tens of thousands of gay nuptials sometime this summer.
But the sharply divided court avoided the broader question at the heart of one of the country's most passionate debates: whether a state has a right to forbid gay couples from walking down the aisle.
And foes of gay marriage, from the architects of Proposition 8 to CatholicVote.org, immediately signaled they are not ready for wedding bells to ring in California just yet for same-sex couples. They plan to try to skirt the impact of Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling, which most legal experts predict ends the defense of Proposition 8 for good.
Not only did the justices find Proposition 8's backers never had a legal right to defend the state's gay marriage ban in place of the governor and attorney general, they also declared a 1996 federal law denying federal benefits to same-sex couples unconstitutional.
The Proposition 8 decision, however, fell short of the clean result that ordinarily flows from a Supreme Court ruling. The ruling sends the case back to a federal judge's original decision invalidating Proposition 8 -- and the only question now is how quickly same-sex couples can marry and whether that ruling will have immediate statewide effect. A Supreme Court decision ordinarily becomes final in about 25 days, but California state officials and gay rights advocates were jockeying Wednesday to stake out new ground in the gay marriage showdown.
Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris quickly announced they would instruct the state's county clerks to begin issuing marriage licenses across California once the Supreme Court ruling is final, arguing that former Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's 2010 injunction applies statewide and wipes Proposition 8 off the books. Harris, in fact, plans to ask the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which inherits the case from the Supreme Court, to move "as soon as possible" to lift the existing stay on Walker's injunction -- which could allow California's estimated 37,000 same-sex couples to marry, according to UCLA's Williams Institute.
Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier, a Berkeley couple who challenged Proposition 8 along with a Los Angeles couple, said they are ready to be among those newlyweds. "We're elated," Perry said after leaving the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
But Proposition 8 supporters and gay marriage opponents are in not-so-fast mode. They maintain Walker's 2010 ruling applies only to the two couples and at most to their two counties, Alameda and Los Angeles. Andrew Pugno, ProtectMarriage.com's chief lawyer, vowed he would try to limit the scope of Walker's ruling.¿
Pugno, however, said the legal team was still reviewing its options.
Legal experts say Proposition 8's backers will have an uphill fight, although renegade county clerks could challenge the state's right to order them to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine law school, said it was clear from the outset Walker's ruling binds California to stop enforcing Proposition 8. And Vikram Amar, a UC Davis law professor who had questioned whether Walker's order could go beyond the two couples who sued, said the defense of Proposition 8 is over.
"I think that train has left the station," Amar said.
In the 5-4 ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court said private citizens, such as backers of a state ballot initiative, have never been allowed to defend state laws in lieu of elected state officials. Because the ballot measure's supporters never had the legal right to appeal Walker's 2010 opinion, the ruling wipes out last year's 9th Circuit decision finding Proposition 8 unconstitutional.
In an interview with this newspaper, Walker said Wednesday the Proposition 8 case was always clouded by the issue of whether the measure's supporters could defend the law alone. The former judge added that there is no ambiguity in his view that his injunction applies statewide.
"But my mind doesn't control this," Walker said.
With its narrow approach to California's circumstances, the Supreme Court left for another day the broader question of whether any state has a right to outlaw gay marriage.
But the Supreme Court went further in its other ruling Wednesday, striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act because it violates the equal protection rights of same-sex couples by denying the same benefits that are given to heterosexual couples.
"DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state sanctioned marriages and make them unequal," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, referring to same-sex marriages in states that permit them.
Writing in dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the DOMA ruling would become fodder to groups challenging state bans on gay marriage, saying the issue should be left to the political battles unfolding across the country.
"By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition," Scalia wrote.
The Supreme Court's decision in the DOMA case immediately provides full federal benefits to same-sex couples in the 12 states that have legalized gay marriage and would apply in California with Proposition 8 overturned. It also would grant federal benefits to the more than 18,000 same-sex couples married in 2008 before Proposition 8 was passed.
The decision was welcome news for Karen Golinski, a San Francisco attorney who had an identical Supreme Court challenge to the federal law awaiting a decision in a case out of New York. A federal judge previously declared the law unconstitutional in Golinski's case, which involved a challenge to the federal government for denying health benefits to her spouse, Amy Cunninghis. The couple married before Proposition 8 went into effect.
"We're ecstatic," Golinski said after the ruling. "It was a very moving decision, and it has a profound effect on us as a couple. The majority's decision understood that."
Lawyers for same-sex couples say the two Supreme Court decisions Wednesday, coupled with mounting political support, will soon end the gay marriage debate.
"We are going to have marriage equality in all 50 states," said David Boies, one of the lawyers who challenged Proposition 8. "It's just a question of time now."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.