“We may in the future have to resolve challenges to state marriage definitions affecting same-sex couples,” Roberts wrote. “That issue, however, is not before us.”
In the Proposition 8 case, the court ruled 5 to 4 that those who appealed a decision throwing out California’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage did not have legal standing to proceed. Thus, the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case.
Only California officials may challenge a federal judge’s decision that Prop. 8 was unconstitutional, Roberts wrote for the majority, and they decided against it. The challenge at the Supreme Court was brought by those who favored Prop. 8, an initiative approved by the state’s voters.
“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,” Roberts wrote. “We decline to do so here.”
The four dissenters — Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor — were justices who would probably disagree on the merits of the case but thought the court should hear them.
They said the ballot initiative process is worthless if state officials can simply refuse to enforce what the people have voted for.
Prop. 8 was passed by California voters in 2008 after the state’s top court ruled 5 to 4 that such unions must be allowed. About 18,000 couples were married after the decision and before Prop. 8 was approved, and those marriages remain valid.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled broadly in 2010 that the initiative was unconstitutional. A decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit was more narrow, also overturning Prop. 8 but in a way that limited the impact to California.
The U.S. Supreme Court threw out that 9th Circuit decision, saying the appeal was not properly before it, and allowed Walker’s ruling to stand.
On Wednesday, it was almost difficult to remember how controversial it was when Theodore Olson and David Boies, adversaries at the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, teamed up to challenge the California constitutional amendment.
Even staunch supporters of same-sex marriage thought that bringing a lawsuit to the Supreme Court that argued for a constitutional right to marriage for gays would risk a setback that could take years to overcome.
But Jeff Zarrillo, who was part of one of the two gay couples named as plaintiffs in the case, said the legal challenge “changed the conversation. It altered the game. It created a groundswell of momentum and passion that brought us here to the Supreme Court today.”
The cases decided Wednesday were U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.