TOPICS > Politics

California Same-Sex Marriage Ban Overturned, But Appeal Likely

August 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A federal judge struck down California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages Wednesday, but proponents have promised an appeal. Spencer Michels reports from San Francisco on the ruling's possible implications for the rest of the country and the prospects for the case making its way to the Supreme Court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: California’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned by a federal judge in San Francisco today. He ruled the measure, approved by voters, was unconstitutional. The landmark case brought by two gay couples, who contended the ban violated their civil rights.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has more on this long battle, beginning with some background.

MALE: With this ring….

MALE: With this ring….

MALE: … I thee wed.

MALE: … I thee wed.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was a decade ago, in 2000, when California voters first banned gay marriage. But, four years later, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom declared on his own that the city would begin performing and recognizing same-sex marriages — 18,000 couples got married. And he predicted the action would have wide repercussions.

GAVIN NEWSOM, Mayor of San Francisco: As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation.


GAVIN NEWSOM: This is so much bigger than the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. This is about families coming together. This is about what we represent as Americans and what the Constitution represents in terms of its principles and protections.

SPENCER MICHELS: Newsom’s actions set off a long and noisy debate in the streets and in the courts. Eventually, the state supreme court approved same-sex marriages, reasoning that the law discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation.

But opponents countered with Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment on the ballot limiting marriage to one man and one woman. It was approved by 52 percent of the voters in 2008. So, gay marriage supporters, including gay and civil rights groups, went to federal court last spring, contending that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, since it took away rights from same-sex couples.

Arguing the case against Prop 8 were two high-profile attorneys, David Boies and Ted Olson, who were on opposite sides in the Bush vs. Gore case that decided the 2000 presidential election. This time, they’re on the same side.

It was defended by evangelicals and other religious and conservative groups who disapprove of gays marrying and raising children.

Frank Schubert was campaign manager for the Proposition 8 ballot measure.

FRANK SCHUBERT, Proposition 8 campaign manager: The people are the supreme power in California. They created the judiciary. They created the legislature, and they control the Constitution. And they have decided that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s not clear yet how today’s ruling will affect marriage laws across the country. Currently, five states, plus the District of Columbia, allow same-sex couples to marry. More than 40 states define marriage as between a man and a woman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A short time ago, supporters of same-sex marriage praised the decision. Kristin Perry was one of the plaintiffs who filed suit against Proposition 8.

Here is some of what she had to say.

KRISTIN PERRY, plaintiff: Today, every American should be proud. For so long, Sandy and I and our family have been regarded as less than, unequal, not worthy of liberty and the pursuit of happiness under the law.

But this decision says that we are Americans, too. We, too, should be treated equally. Our family is just as loving, just as real, and just as valid as everyone else’s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some opponents, meantime, warned that the decision could lead to legal challenges in states that don’t allow same-sex marriage.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council wrote, “This lawsuit, should it be upheld on appeal and in the Supreme Court, would become the Roe v. Wade of same-sex marriage, overturning the marriage laws of 45 states.”

Perkins continued — quote — “It’s time for the far left to stop insisting that judges redefine our most fundamental social institution and using liberal courts to attain a political goal they cannot obtain at the ballot box.”

And more now about the decision and the reaction.

Spencer Michels joins us from outside that federal courthouse in San Francisco.

Spencer, I have a copy of this 136-page ruling here with me. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing. I don’t know about you, but fill us in on what the judge’s main ruling is here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Well, Judy, I think the judge agreed pretty much with the people who were opposing Proposition 8.

I have a copy of it as well, and I want to read just a little bit of the conclusion for you.

It says: “Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Prop 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”

So, the judge wrote a very strong opinion that more or less coincided with what the opponents of Prop 8 wanted him to say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what I — what we’re hearing from the proponents is that, in essence, this judge has said that Proposition 8 violates both the equal protection clause and the due process clause of the Constitution — of the United States Constitution.

SPENCER MICHELS: Well, I think he does say that, and he’s also talking a lot about discrimination, many references in this 135-page decision to discrimination against gays and lesbians. That’s really a strong point that he makes. And so he thinks that that’s protected under the Constitution that you can’t discriminate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Spencer, about this charge from the critics, the opponents — the supporters of Proposition 8, that this was a liberal judge, in fact, he was appointed by — initially attempted to be appointed by President Reagan and ultimately was appointed by George H.W. Bush.

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s right. He was appointed by President H.W. — George H.W. Bush. He’s regarded as somewhat of a maverick, somewhat of perhaps a libertarian. There were signs in front of the court that alluded to his own sexual orientation, kind of criticizing him.

Whether that had anything to do with this case, nobody knows, but it’s been talked about a fair amount.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Spencer, what does this ruling mean for couples in the state of California, same-sex couples? Are they able to get married now? What’s the understanding?

SPENCER MICHELS: Well — well, I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that question yet.

There are about 100,000 gay couples in California. The people who have opposed gay marriage want to be sure — and they were anticipating this decision, by the way — they want to be sure that the floodgates aren’t opened right away for people to get married now.

The other side wants to be heard by the judge on that as well, and so that’s an issue that will have to come up fairly shortly.

Now, the other side wants to be heard by the judge on that as well, so that’s an issue that will have to come up fairly shortly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as you suggest, the proponents of Proposition 8 had already served notice that they plan to appeal.

What is their course — their recourse here?

SPENCER MICHELS: Well, they’re going to go to the Ninth Circuit, which is California and the rest of the West’s appellate court in the federal system. That court has a — kind of liberal bias. At least, that’s the charge. In actual fact, they probably aren’t any more liberal than any other court.

They’re going to take up this case. And, from there, what one of the lawyers I talked to today said is that what happens in the Ninth Circuit is going to be very, very important, that they will set precedent, and, if they set a precedent that makes the Ninth Circuit different than the rest of the country, then the Supreme Court will want to step in and settle this issue.

You can’t have gay marriage approved in the Ninth Circuit and not in the rest of the country. So, the Supreme Court will want to get involved in that. If — so, that’s probably what will happen. It probably will go to the Supreme Court eventually.

The people who are in favor of gay marriage aren’t really happy to go to the Supreme Court at this point. They know the makeup of that court, and they probably figure that they don’t have a big chance of winning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Spencer, you were saying in your report a few minutes ago that it’s not clear the effect this is going to have on the other 49 states right now. What is your understanding of that?

SPENCER MICHELS: Well, as I said, right now, this — this court is just a district court, a trial court. It doesn’t present a precedent.

If it goes to the Ninth Circuit, then there is a precedent involved, and the Ninth Circuit rules in most of the states west of the Rockies. But the rest of the country is not bound by the Ninth Circuit.

So, the U.S. Supreme Court would have to make a decision for the rest of the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the reaction, we know, is just beginning to come in. We have reported some of it, and, of course, it will continue.

Our own Spencer Michels outside the courthouse, the federal courthouse, there in San Francisco — thank you, Spencer.

SPENCER MICHELS: Thank you, Judy.