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Landmark Decision to Overturn Prop. 8 Will Stand

Prop 8 February 7 2012 Person Holds Equality Sign - H 2012
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Appeals court denies a petition for a rehearing on the California gay-marriage initiative, making way for a Supreme Court showdown.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday denied a request by proponents of Proposition 8 that it reconsider its ruling striking down California’s hotly contested constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage.

Prop. 8’s backers now are expected to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court when it reconvenes in October after its summer break. Legal scholars and court watchers are divided on whether the high court will accept the case for review.

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“Today’s order is yet another federal court victory for loving, committed gay and lesbian couples in California and around the nation,” said Americans for Equal Rights co-founder Chad Griffin. “The final chapter of the Proposition 8 case has now begun. Should the United States Supreme Court decide to review the 9th Circuit’s decision in our case, I am confident that the justices will stand on the side of fairness and equality."

The ballot measure, which rewrote California’s constitution to overturn a landmark state Supreme Court decision vindicating the rights of gays and lesbians to marriage equality, passed in 2008. Its opponents challenged the initiative in federal court and, in 2010, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker struck the measure down as unconstitutional. Prop. 8’s proponents then appealed to the 9th Circuit, and in February, a three-judge panel voted 2-1 to uphold Walker’s decision. It did so, however, on grounds that appeared to narrow the ruling’s applicability to California, something legal analysts said was designed to give the Supreme Court -- which is far more conservative than the 9th Circuit -- a reason not to accept an appeal.

Writing for the majority, Judge Stephen Reinhardt held that, “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

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Prop. 8’s backers then asked the 9th Circuit to rehear the case “en banc," which would have required that the case be reargued before a larger panel of 11 judges chosen at random from the circuit. Tuesday’s ruling declined that request, and the only opening supporters of the measure now have available to them is an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The high court is likely to be asked to hear arguments in at least one other marriage-equality case. Last week, Boston’s 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutionally withholds benefits from same-sex couples in states where their unions are legal. Because it deals purely with a federal statute, analysts believe the Supreme Court is likely to hear that appeal. The 9th Circuit’s decision, by contrast, specifically states that it applies to a set of facts unique to California and arising from the state’s political process.