A federal appeals court has declared California's same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional, paving the way for a likely U.S. Supreme Court showdown on the voter-approved law.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 2-1 Tuesday that a lower court judge interpreted the U.S. Constitution correctly in 2010 when he declared the ban, known as Proposition 8, to be a violation of the civil rights of gays and lesbians.
The California court ruled in November that the state's vigorous citizens' initiative process grants official proponents of ballot measures the right to defend their measures in court if state officials refuse to do so.
Further complicating the case was a move in April by lawyers for the coalition of conservative religious groups that put Proposition 8 on the ballot to have the trial court ruling struck down because the now-retired judge who issued it was in a long-term relationship with another man.
Former Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker disclosed he was gay and had a partner of 10 years after he retired from the bench last year. Proposition 8 backers have argued that Walker's relationship posed a potential conflict-of-interest and that he should have revealed it before he declared the measure unconstitutional in August 2010.
It was the first instance of an American jurist's sexual orientation being cited as grounds for overturning a court decision. Walker's successor as the chief federal judge in Northern California, James Ware, rejected claims that Walker was unqualified to preside over the 13-day trial. The 9th Circuit held a hearing on that question in December.
Some legal observers believe the written heads-up the court gave Monday indicates it concluded there is no reason Walker should have disclosed his relationship status while he had the case.
California voters passed Proposition 8 with 52 percent of the vote in November 2008, five months after the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage by striking down a pair of laws that had limited marriage to a man and a woman.
The ballot measure inserted the one man-one woman provision into the state Constitution, thereby overruling the court's decision. It was the first such ban to take away marriage rights from same-sex couples after they had already secured them.
The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and the Law, a think tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles, has estimated that 18,000 couples tied the knot during the four-month window before Proposition 8 took effect. The California Supreme Court upheld those marriages but ruled that voters had properly enacted the law.
"The circumstances in California are unprecedented. The state Supreme Court found marriage equality to be a right of the highest order under the state Constitution, and thousands of couples actually exercised that right before a discriminatory initiative took it away," Wolff said. "The federal courts would do well to focus their attention on those unique circumstances, which would support a ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional while leaving the situation in other states for another day."