By Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News –
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down Proposition 8, finding that California’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional because it deprives gay and lesbian couples of the equal right to wed.
With a decision that pushes the gay marriage issue a step closer to the U.S. Supreme Court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld former San Francisco Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who invalidated Proposition 8 in 2010 after conducting an unprecedented trial.
“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote, joined by Judge Michael Daly Hawkins.
Judge N. Randy Smith dissented, saying there were “legitimate governmental interests” in restricting the definition of marriage to a union between a man and woman.
Proposition 8 backers can now ask the 9th Circuit to rehear the case with an 11-judge panel, or proceed directly to the Supreme Court. Smith’s dissent could be a strong indicator there will be some support within the court to take a second look at the case.
The appeals court also rejected the argument that Walker’s ruling should be scrapped because he did not disclose he was in a long-term same-sex relationship while he was handling the case. Smith joined in that part of the ruling.
As a result of the continued legal wrangling, same-sex marriages are not expected to resume in California any time soon, with further appeals likely to stretch at least into next year.
In the ruling, Reinhardt, considered one of the nation’s most liberal judges, relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision striking down a Colorado law that stripped gays and lesbians of protections against discrimination there.
The ruling, however, was focused on California’s circumstances, notably the fact Proposition 8 took away the right of same-sex couples to marry that had been established in a 2008 California Supreme Court decision.
The 9th Circuit did not declare a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry, a broader definition that could have undercut bans on gay marriage in four other western states.
Gay marriage advocates cheered the ruling. California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who refused to defend the law in the 9th Circuit, called the decision a “victory for fairness.”
And California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also has refused to defend Proposition 8, issued a statement saying the ruling is “a powerful affirmation of the right of same-sex couples to marry.”
The appeals court’s ruling marks another setback for gay marriage opponents, who passed Proposition 8 in 2008 by a 52 to 48 percent margin.
“No court should presume to redefine marriage,” said Brian Raum, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. “We are not surprised that this Hollywood-orchestrated attack on marriage — tried in San Francisco — turned out this way. But we are confident that the expressed will of the American people in favor of marriage will be upheld in the Supreme Court.”