Federal court overturns ban on same-sex marriage

A federal appellate court today overturned Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved law that bans same-sex marriage, saying the 2008 initiative violated constitutional guarantees to equal protection and due process.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court ruling by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco, who tossed out Proposition 8, which voters approved by voters in November 2008 after a ferocious campaign. The measure won by about 600,000 votes, or 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent  out of some 13 million ballots cast.

Rivals spent a combined $94 million for or against the measure, which drew international attention, activists from across the country and a 24-7 television advertising campaign that blanketed the airwaves.

The decision is all but certain to be appealed to the full 11-member, appellate court and to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could hear the case as early as next year.

The ruling by the 9th Circuit was not entirely unexpected: The court is considered the most liberal of the U.S. appellate courts and its decisions often have sparked controversy.

Reaction to Tuesday’s decision was predictably mixed. 

“I”m not a bit surprised,” Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said in a written statement released by her office, “but I am delighted. This is the kind of thing that gives people hope.”

But Andy Pugno, the lawyer for the pro-Proposition 8 political coalition, Protect Marriage, denounced the appellate court’s ruling.

We will immediately appeal this misguided decision that disregards the will of more than 7 million Californians who voted to restore marriage as the unique union of only a man and woman. We are confident that the rights of California voters will finally win out,” he said.

California’s handling of gender-marriage issues has a stormy legal and political history.

In 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 22 to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples, backing the measure by 61 percent to 39 percent – a margin that surprised political observers because pre-election polling showed the electorate far more closely divided.

In May 2008, the state Supreme Court overturned Proposition 22, paving the way for a furious campaign by opponents of same-sax marriage to place a ban before voters the following November, a presidential general election.

In a separate decision, the 9th Circuit also ruled that Walker, who is gay,  was not required to have stepped down from hearing the case.

Proposition 8’s backers, a group called Protect Marriage, and others argued that Walker’s sexual orientation required him to recuse himself from the case, while foes argued that Walker, as a member of a minority group, didn’t need to recuse himself from a case that affected his own group.

Last year, a separate trial court decision held that Walker wasn’t required to recuse himself from the case; the decision is being appealed. Today’s decision upholds that ruling.

Walker, agreeing with the foes of Proposition 8, ruled in 2010 that Proposition 8’s ban on same-sex marriage violated constitutional due-process and equal protection provisions. Opponents of the measure said the fundamental issue was one of civil rights.

The suit that resulted in Walker’s ruling had been filed by two same-sex couples who challenged Proposition 8’s constitutionality.

The fundamental dispute focused on the nature of marriage.

Backers of Proposition 8 said marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples in order to assure proper child rearing, a core aspect of human society.

Opponents said same-sex marriages would have little impact on heterosexual marriages, and that allowing same-sex unions would provide legitimacy to children who are being raised same-sex parents.

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