SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court on Tuesday declared California's 2008 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, concluding the prohibition served no purpose other than to "lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians."
The 2-1 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was narrowly written to limit its scope to California's borders and possibly even avoid review by the U.S. Supreme Court, legal experts said. Nonetheless, gay-rights advocates hailed the decision as historic, while supporters of Proposition 8 vowed to appeal.
Instead of expanding the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians, the court based its decision on a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court precedent that said a majority may not take away a minority's rights without legitimate reasons.
"Proposition 8 operates with no apparent purpose but to impose on gays and lesbians, through the public law, a majority's private disapproval of them and their relationships," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the court.
The ruling won't take effect for about three weeks to give the sponsors of Proposition 8 time to appeal.
Though divided on the constitutional question, the three-judge panel unanimously agreed that ProtectMarriage, the backers of Proposition 8, had the right or legal "standing" to appeal Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's 2010 ruling against the ballot measure.
The panel also unanimously rejected a challenge by ProtectMarriage that Walker's ruling should be set aside because he failed to disclose he was in a same-sex relationship. Walker, who has since retired, ruled after an unprecedented, two-week trial that examined the meaning of sexual orientation and the history of marriage and gay rights.
Some lawyers and legal scholars said the 9th Circuit might have the final word on Proposition 8 because the ruling was so pointedly limited to California.
Proposition 8 passed as a constitutional amendment six months after the California Supreme Court struck down a state law that limited marriage to a man and a woman, and an estimated 18,000 same-sex couples married during that time.
"That legal background does not exist in most states," said University of Minnesota Law School professor Dale Carpenter, who has followed the case.
Douglas NeJaime, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, agreed, noting that Tuesday's decision allows the U.S. Supreme Court to postpone a pronouncement on same-sex marriage until a more sweeping case comes along.