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Appeals court reinstates (sort of) same-sex marriage in California

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court that covers California, has ruled that Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, violates the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling is narrow and the three-judge panel stayed its effect to give same-sex marriage opponents a chance to appeal to the full circuit, which they plan to do. The question could ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But even if the Supremes  affirm the three-judge ruling, it would not strike down all gay marriage bans and it’s unclear what effect it might have on the proposed Minnesota constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that will be on the ballot this year.

California in 2008 adopted by referendum a state constitutional amendment limiting the right of marriage to opposite sex couples. The wording of that amendment is almost identical to the Minnesota wording, but one difference in the two situations is that Proposition 8 was adopted, in effect, to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling that had struck down the statutory ban on gay marriage. In Minnesota, the courts have not struck down the existing ban. The proposed Minnesota amendment would would not change marriage law in Minnesota. It would elevate the ban on gay marriage to a constitutional provision in a pre-emptive move to make it harder for a Minnesota court to strike down the ban.

This morning’s California ruling seems to apply only in situations where the right of same-sex couples to marry has been granted, then revoked. The ruling does not apply even to the other eight western states under the jurisdiction of the 9th circuit.

The ruling — and it was supported by only two of the three appeals court judges on the panel — seemed to be as narrowly targeted as possible, stating that it did not reach the underlying issue of whether any state limit marriage to opposite sex couples. The two-judge majority of the panel wrote:

Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently. There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted.

But the judges added:

Whether under the Constitution same-sex couples may ever be denied the right to marry, a right that has long been enjoyed by opposite-sex couples, is an important and highly controversial question. We need not and do not answer the broader question in this case.

The New York Times breaking coverage of the ruling is here.

The full ruling, via the L.A. Times, is here.

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