The Washington Post

Supreme Court clears way for same-sex marriage in California

The Supreme Court cleared the way Wednesday for same-sex marriages in California, declining to rule on the state’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that those who appealed a decision throwing out the constitutional amendment 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 Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, and they decided against it. The challenge at the Supreme Court was brought by those who favored Proposition 8.

“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 were justices who would probably disagree on the merits of the case but thought the court should hear them.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor and conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in objecting. They said the initiative process is worthless if state officials can simply refuse to enforce what the people have voted for.

In an earlier ruling on Wednesday morning, the court struck down as unconstitutional a key element of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in the states where they reside.

Just hours after the ruling in the Proposition 8 case, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced via Twitter that his state will soon begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.

Gay rights advocates had mounted an expensive and groundbreaking legal challenge to a decision by California voters in 2008 to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. The move followed a decision by the state Supreme Court that same-sex unions must be allowed.

Proposition 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 Proposition 8 was approved, and those marriages remain valid.

Challengers have been successful. U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled broadly that the initiative was unconstitutional. A decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit was more narrow, also overturning Proposition 8 but in a way that limited the impact to California.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s action threw out that 9th Circuit decision, saying the appeal was not properly before it, and allowed Walker’s ruling to stand.

When the lawsuit that led to Walker’s ruling was filed four years ago, only three states allowed same-sex marriage.

Now, 12 states and the District of Columbia sanction same-sex marriages, and most polls show that a majority of Americans support the unions. Those younger than 30 overwhelmingly favor it.

It is also difficult now 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 bringing to the Supreme Court a lawsuit that argued for a constitutional right to marriage for gays could bring a setback that could take years to overcome.

But many now argue that the national debate over same-sex marriage contributed to some of the movement’s greatest successes. Although the idea is deeply unpopular in parts of the country, especially the South, voters for the first time endorsed same-sex marriage at the ballot box in three states, including Maryland.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
Republicans debate tonight. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
He says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything in the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.