Discrimination in marriage in California has been ruled unconstitutional yet again. In June 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled in favour of equal marriage. This was overturned by an amendment to the California Supreme Court, Proposition 8, passed November 2008. Those couples had married in that period could stay married, but no further gay couples could marry. The ruling on the high-profile case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger (now Perry v. Brown), in August 2010 in the US Federal District of Northern California overturned Prop 8, as violating both the equal treatment and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. It was immediately appealed, and its effect stayed pending the ruling on the appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal was announced today, confirming that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.
So once again all couples can wed in California (constitutionally at least, I’m not sure if the decision has been given a stay on appeal). But on what grounds? The three court judge ruled by 2–1 that because Proposition 8 left gay couples with all the equivalent rights and responsibilities of marriage through domestic partnership, but without the word marriage, there was no rational basis presented by the proponents for the distinction (summary here, full ruling, which I’ve yet to even scan through here).
The decision appeals to the logic of Romer v. Evans, a 1996 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, which overturned an amendment to the Colorado constitution forbidding anti-discrimination laws protecting gay and lesbian citizens. As Justice Kennedy is seen as the swing vote, this is seen to make it likely to upheld again if it comes before the Supreme Court.
But whatever of the political reality of it, there’s a strange logic that follows. If Proposition 8 had deprived gay couples of any aspect of marriage other than the name, of if California had not had decent domestic partnership, then the case for equality would have failed today in California. To give an analogy, let’s say these isles were US States. It would rule a ban on equal marriage in the United Kingdom as unconstitutional, but one in Ireland as constitutional. That’s because in the United Kingdom civil partnership is practically identical in legal terms to marriage, so there’s no reason not to grant the name, whereas here in Ireland there are several differences between the two. So is there an incentive for those who want to maintain a distinction in the words to leave out some token measure of rights that pertain to marriage too?
We’ll see what effect this has on the election. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has already criticised the decision of “Today, unelected judges cast [who] aside the will of the people of California who voted to protect traditional marriage”. Will he be forced into making this a campaign issue? I really doubt there’s much political capital for him there if he does. And for President Barack Obama, the ruling is neatly in line with his stated view in 2008, that while not in favour of a general right of gay couples to marry, he did oppose Proposition 8 in California.