In a landmark but mixed decision the US Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal recognition of gay and lesbian couples. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy the majority decision announced in plain terms that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause and was therefore unconstitutional. Kennedy is the lone moderate of the court and a maverick of civil rights jurisprudence. He has now written three of the Court’s most important decisions on civil rights for gays and lesbians, including Romer v. Evans, which struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2 in 1996, and Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated all state laws criminalizing sodomy in 2003.
The court also made a procedural ruling in the California case, effectively ending the efforts of Prop 8 proponents to overturn the Federal District Court ruling that struck down Prop 8 because it violated the Equal Protection Clause. In his majority opinion Chief Justice Roberts denied that private citizens had standing to adjudicate the appeals of state laws, arguing the Court had never done that before and would not do it now. Since Prop 8 proponents are not state agents, they cannot appeal the ruling of federal district judge Vaughn Walker, who found it unconstitutional after a long and highly publicized trial. However, Roberts and the Court stopped short of making a substantive ruling on whether state laws and marriage amendments passed by states are constitutional, signaling that it would let states decide for the time being.
The combined ruling of the two cases is seen as a victory by the LGBT community, particularly in California where the state assembly passed legislation allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry only to have the referendum Prop 8 overturn that legislation by small margins. This left the state in a strange place where many couples got married when it was legal, only to have other couples denied the same rights to marry several months later. Today, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered state agencies to prepare for issuing civil marriage licenses to all Californians regardless of their sexual orientation and gender, and he admonished the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to lift its injunction while Prop 8 was being appealed.