Federal Appeals Court Finds California’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional
A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled on Tuesday that California’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional.
In a 2-1 ruling, the three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld now retired Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s 2010 ruling that found Proposition 8 unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses.
The court dismissed Prop 8 proponents’ claims that Vaughn should have recused himself from the case because he was in a long-term relationship with another man. State officials declined to defend Prop 8, but the judges upheld the California Supreme Court’s non-binding ruling in November that said the defendants had legal standing to challenge Vaughn’s ruling under state law.
"This case is about marriage and it’s also about freedom and dignity and fairness and decency," lawyer Ted Olson, who represents the plaintiffs alongside David Boies, told reporters on a conference call after the judges issued their ruling.
LGBT rights activists immediately applauded the decision.
"Today’s powerful court ruling striking down the infamous Prop 8 affirms basic American values and helps tear down a discriminatory barrier to marriage that benefits no one while making it harder for people to take care of their loved ones," said Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson. "The Ninth Circuit rightly held that a state simply may not take a group of people and shove them outside the law, least of all when it comes to something as important as the commitment and security of marriage."
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the court’s decision affirms that the Constitution guarantees LGBT Americans basic civil rights.
"Proposition 8 does nothing to strengthen or protect any marriage. Instead, it singles out thousands of loving California families for different treatment, simply because they are gay and lesbian couples," he said. "We applaud the Ninth Circuit for recognizing that our Constitution cannot tolerate such egregious discrimination."
The court’s decision comes a day before the Washington House of Representatives is slated to vote on a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the Evergreen State. The New Jersey State Senate is scheduled to vote on a measure on Feb. 13 that would allow nuptials for gays and lesbians in the Garden State, while Maryland legislators continue to debate a marriage equality bill in their state.
New Hampshire lawmakers are poised to debate a bill later this month that would repeal their state’s marriage equality law. North Carolina voters in May will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. Minnesotans are slated to consider a similar ballot measure in November, while Maine voters will vote on a referendum that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the Pine Tree State.
The Obama administration announced last February that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, but DOMA still forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex relationships. The Southern Poverty Law Center on Feb. 1 announced it would file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs on behalf of a disabled veteran from California whose application for spousal benefits for her wife was denied. Eight gay and lesbian servicemembers and veterans who were also denied these benefits challenged DOMA’s constitutionality in a lawsuit they filed in federal court in October.
Prop 8 supporters will almost certainly appeal the court’s decision, which only applies to California. Same-sex couples cannot begin to marry once again in the Golden State until the case is officially resolved.
"This is an exciting day for all of us, and especially for those of us at Lambda Legal who have been fighting for marriage equality for decades, from our efforts in Hawaii almost 20 years ago to our victories before the California Supreme Court in 2008 and the Iowa Supreme Court in 2009, to our ongoing lawsuit in New Jersey," said Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal. "It is inevitable that marriage equality will be won across the nation through either the legislative or judicial processes."
The case is expected to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, but Olson said this decision will set a precedent.
"This is a very significant milepost on our way to equality in this country," he said. "We’re not there all the way yet. One of these days, soon I suspect, I feel strongly that we will be, but this could not be more important."
Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.