By Lisa Keen
A glimmer of politics showed through Tuesday (June 5) when the full Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals declined a request from supporters of California’s ban on same-sex marriage to review a circuit panel’s decision that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.
In a dissent from the order refusing to have the full Ninth Circuit hear the landmark Perry v. Brown case, three judges signed onto a dissent, noting that just a few weeks ago, President Obama had “ignited a media firestorm by announcing that he supports same-sex marriage as a policy matter.” The three said the refusal to review the circuit panel’s decision “silenced” President Obama’s suggestion that the nation continue its “conversation” about same-sex marriage “in a respectful way.”
All three dissenters were appointees of Republican presidents.
But politics or not, the refusal to give Perry v. Brown full circuit court review is a major victory for supporters of marriage equality and means almost certainly that the “final chapter” in the historic litigation can now begin, says Chad Griffin, co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights which organized and funded the lawsuit.
Attorneys for Proposition 8 supporters said they will now file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Ninth Circuit decisions. Ted Olson, a lead attorney for the gay couples in Perry, said that, even if the Supreme Court refuses to hear that appeal, the litigation would be a “complete victory” for the plaintiff couples.
One looming question for the Perry case is whether the Supreme Court, if it accepts the case, would review the Ninth Circuit panel’s very narrow reasoning to strike down Proposition 8 or the federal district court’s more sweeping reasoning concerning equal protection, due process, and the fundamental right to marry. While Olson said upholding a narrow reasoning might still affect same-sex marriage in some states beyond California, upholding the broader reasoning could affect every state.
With last week’s First Circuit decision striking a core section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) also heading to the nation’s highest court, it is now likely the Supreme Court will have two major same-sex marriage cases on its docket in October.
The Ninth Circuit case, if accepted, could ask whether states can take away the right to marry from same-sex couples or whether same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marriage and to be treated equally under marriage laws. The First Circuit case, if accepted, would ask whether the federal government can refuse to recognize marriages licensed by states to same-sex couples.
David Boies, the other lead attorney for the Perry couples, said that, while the questions in each case are very “distinct,” the issues are closely related and could –if both are accepted– be heard very close together.
The three-paragraph order June 5 stated that the request for a full court review “failed to receive a majority of the votes” of active judges. It also noted that the order would be stayed for 90 days to enable proponents of Proposition 8 to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The dissenting judges did not mince words in their three-paragraph dissent. They said the circuit panel’s 2 to 1 decision striking Proposition 8 was a “gross misapplication” of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Romer v. Evans. In that 1996 case, the Supreme Court said states could not pass laws that excluded gays from protection based on animus against the group.
The dissenters said refusing to give full Ninth Circuit review to Perry v. Brown means the Ninth Circuit judges “have now declared that animus must have been the only conceivable motivation for a sovereign state to have remained committed to a definition of marriage that has existed for millennia.”
Proponents of Proposition 8, known as Yes on 8, filed the Ninth Circuit full court appeal, asking it to overturn a decision by the panel last February. That panel decision found that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the federal constitution by stripping from same-sex couples a right they had (to marry) prior to passage of Proposition 8. In order for a limited full court review to have been granted, at least 14 of the circuit’s 26 active judges would have had to say another review is warranted.
The Perry v. Brown lawsuit is led by famed conservative attorney Ted Olson and preeminent liberal attorney David Boies and organized and funded by the American Foundation for Equal Rights.
In the case, two same-sex couples sued the state after being denied marriage licenses after the voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage went into effect in November 2008.
U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled, in August 2010, that banning same-sex couples from obtaining marriage licenses violates the federal constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. He agreed to delay enforcement of the decision, pending an appeal by Yes on 8 attorneys to the Ninth Circuit.
In February 2012, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, in a 2 to 1 vote, upheld Walker’s decision but on much more narrow grounds. The panel majority – Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Michael Hawkins – said Proposition 8 improperly removed from a group of citizens (gays) a right they already enjoyed (marriage) without sufficient justification.
Reinhardt and Hawkins submitted a paragraph with the June 5 refusal order, saying they were “puzzled” by their dissenting colleagues’ “unusual reliance on the President’s views regarding the Constitution, especially as the President did not discuss the narrow issue that we decided in our opinion.”
“We,” said Reinhardt and Hawkins, “held only that under the particular circumstances relating to California’s Proposition 8, that measure was invalid. In line with the rules governing judicial resolution of constitutional issues, we did not resolve the fundamental question that both sides asked us to: whether the Constitution prohibits the states from banning same-sex marriage. That question,” they said, “may be decided in the near future, but if so, it should be in some other case, at some other time.”
The “particular circumstances” they referred to were that the California Supreme Court had ruled, in May 2008, that the state constitution required that same-sex couples be able to obtain marriage licenses the same as straight couples. Thousands of couples did begin obtaining marriage licenses, but, in November of that year, voters approved Proposition 8, amending the state constitution to explicitly ban the recognition of same-sex marriage.
While attorneys and activists uniformly called the February 7 panel decision a major victory, they acknowledged that the decision did stop short of saying that same-sex partners, like straight partners, have a “fundamental right to marry.” Instead, it said Proposition 8 deprived same-sex partners only of the “right to use the designation of ‘marriage.'” If it had ruled same-sex couples had a fundamental right to marry, said Lambda Legal Defense’s legal director Jon Davidson, “the marriage laws of 44 states would have been cast into doubt….” And by rendering such a relatively narrow ruling, said Davidson and others, the panel reduced the likelihood the U.S. Supreme Court would take the case.
“The fundamental right to marry, as protected by the US Constitution,” said Williams Institute legal scholar Jenny Pizer, “has to have the same contours throughout the country. So a decision concluding that same-sex couples have the same fundamental right as different-sex couples would call into question all the marriage restrictions states currently impose.”