The United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), this morning, regarding the validity of Proposition 8. The outcome is that same-sex marriage is once again legal in California. The Supreme Court did not rule on a specific right to same-sex marriage, but rather it stated that neither it nor the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (which includes California) had the power to hear the case. Hollingsworth is largely a procedural case, and it requires some background to fully understand.
In 2008, the California Supreme Court held that the California Constitution’s equal protection clause prohibited limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. Shortly thereafter, California voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. The Respondents in Hollingsworth, two same-sex couples, filed suit against various California state and local officials in federal District Court asserting that Proposition 8 was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. California state officials declined to defend Proposition 8, and the District Court allowed the Proponents (the parties who put Proposition 8 on the ballot) to defend it. The District Court then declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and state officials declined to appeal. The Proponents then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit ultimately held that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, and the Proponents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even though the Ninth Circuit found Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional, it put a “stay” in place, meaning that same-sex marriages were put on hold while the appeal to the Supreme Court was pending.
In order for a case to be heard in federal court, the U.S. Constitution requires that there must be an “actual controversy” and parties must have standing; that is, there must be a concrete and personal injury to the parties that can be remedied. Generalized injuries are typically not sufficient to confer standing, nor is being a “citizen” or a “taxpayer.” In Hollingsworth, the Respondents had standing to sue in the District Court because they had an actual injury – California’s refusal to permit them to marry. Once they won and the state declined to appeal, their injury had been fully redressed. The Proponents of Proposition 8 contended that they had standing to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit (and subsequently the Supreme Court) because of their special role in the ballot initiative process. The Ninth Circuit eventually concluded that the Proponents had standing, but Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court today has reversed the Ninth Circuit and stated that the Proponents lacked standing because they failed to show a particularized harm. Even though they were the driving force behind putting Proposition 8 on the ballot, once it passed, the Proponents’ interest in defending the law became indistinguishable from the general interest of every other Californian. Further, the Proponents did not qualify as “agents” of the state or the people of California, and thus had no special status that might confer standing.
Because standing is a threshold question in federal court, the U.S. Supreme Court did not reach the merits of the Hollingsworth case. This means they did not rule on whether Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit with instructions to dismiss it because the Proponents lack standing to bring their case in federal court.
The next step will be for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to officially dismiss the case and lift the stay. Once the stay is lifted, the District Court’s decision that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution will go into effect. Governor Jerry Brown has already ordered the California County Clerks’ offices to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at that time. The Proponents have stated that they will continue to pursue legal action to enforce Proposition 8, but for the time being, same-sex marriage will once again be legal in California as soon as the Ninth Circuit acts.