The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the sponsors of Proposition 8 had no standing, or legal authority, to appeal a trial court ruling that struck down the statewide ban on same-sex marriage.
The 5-4 ruling has the effect of reinstating a 2010 decision in which now-retired U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco ruled in favor of two couples who challenged the 2008 voter initiative in a federal civil rights lawsuit.
The two couples who challenged the measure in a federal lawsuit in 2009 at Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier of Berkeley and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo of Burbank.
Walker said in that ruling that Proposition 8 violated the federal constitutional rights to equal treatment and due process.
Gov. Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who were the original defendants in the couples' lawsuit, had refused to appeal, and the high court said today the initiative's sponsors, as a private group, didn't have the right to step in to defend it.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, "We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to do so.
"We decline to do so for the first time here," Roberts wrote.
In another decision today, the court by a 5-4 vote struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which had prohibited the U.S. government granting federal benefits and tax advantages to same-sex couples who were legally married in their state.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has said that in the event the high court dismissed the Proposition 8 appeal for lack of standing, he expected same-sex weddings in California to resume when the decision becomes final in about a month.
But there could be further litigation about the scope of Walker's ruling.
Herrera and lawyers for the two couples say an injunction issued by Walker requires California officials to license and register same-sex marriages on a statewide basis.
The sponsors of Proposition 8 have said in court filings, however, that they think Walker's injunction would only apply to the two individual couples who challenged Proposition 8.
Herrera said today, "My office is prepared to litigate immediately against any effort to limit or delay the restoration of marriage equality for all Californians."
Herrera also said, "I'm grateful for a decision that finally ends marriage discrimination against gay and lesbian couples, and that strikes down a law that has no place in 21st century California."
However, Andy Pugno, a lawyer for Protect Marriage, the Proposition 8 sponsors' campaign committee, said the group will continue to try to enforce Proposition 8.
"While it is unfortunate that the Court's ruling does not directly resolve questions about the scope of the trial court's order against Prop 8, we will continue to defend Prop 8 and seek its enforcement until such time as there is a binding statewide order that renders Prop 8 unenforceable," Pugno said.
Proposition 8 amended the California Constitution to provide that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid in the state.
Today's Supreme Court ruling set aside a decision in which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld the couples' right to marry, although on narrow grounds that would apply only to California.
Hundreds of people gathered inside San Francisco City Hall this morning in anticipation of today's rulings. The DOMA ruling was announced first, eliciting loud cheers.
When the Proposition 8 ruling was released, there was initial confusion about what it meant, but the confusion quickly turned to jubilation when it became clear that same-sex marriages will likely resume in California.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee addressed the crowd, calling today a "historic, historic day for all of us."
"It's been a long road ... but gosh, it feels good to have love triumph over ignorance," Lee said.
Lee and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom walked down the steps under the City Hall Rotunda with Phyllis Lyon, one half of the first lesbian couple to wed in San Francisco when same-sex marriage was briefly legal in 2008. Her spouse, Del Martin, died later that year.
"What a day, a special day," said Newsom, who started it all by unexpectedly allowing same-sex weddings in the city shortly after he became mayor in 2004.
Newsom said it is the leadership of same-sex rights pioneers like Lyon and Martin that led to today's events.
"It's people like Phyllis and Del that stepped up and stepped in half a century ago to these debates ... They didn't wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder, they didn't wait to ask for permission," Newsom said.
He pointed out that the story is not yet finished.
"Like any journey it's not linear -- it's messy, it's complex. There are good days and bad days, but it's a worthy journey that we're on," Newsom said.