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Proposition 8 Ruled Unconstitutional by 9th Circuit Panel... What This Means, And What Comes Next

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We just received the 9th Circuit's opinion in Perry v. Brown that Proposition 8, the 2008 voter-enacted ban on marriage equality in California, is unconstitutional. In addition, the appeals panel ruled that the proponents of Prop 8 did have standing to pursue their appeal of Judge Walker's decision striking down the marriage ban, and upheld District Court Judge Ware's decision denying a stay to throw out Walker's ruling because he is gay. The ruling on constitutionality was divided on an 2-1 vote, with Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Michael Hawkins voting to strike Prop 8 down, and Judge N. Randy Smith voting to uphold the ban. The ruling regarding standing and the motion to throw out Judge Walker's decision was a unanimous 3-0 vote.

In his Aug. 4, 2010, decision, which the 9th Circuit upheld today, District Court Judge Vaughn Walker struck down Prop 8 as unconstitutional under both the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment. In his opinion, Judge Walker presented 80 findings of fact regarding same-sex marriage, which included discussions about the immutability of sexual orientation, the ability of same-sex couples to be good parents, and the inequality of providing LGBT couples with civil unions as opposed to full marriages. These findings of fact are highly significant, because while appellate courts can overturn a lower court's decision based on its findings of law, they usually defer to those courts' findings of fact. Today's ruling affirms Judge Walker's findings of fact, meaning that they can but used in the future in other trial cases in the 9th Circuit that deal with LGBT rights.

Today's ruling is also significant because the 9th Circuit ruled that District Court Judge James Ware, who took over the Perry case when Judge Walker retired, was correct in denying a motion filed by Prop 8's proponents to overturn Judge Walker's decision on the grounds that he failed to disclose that he himself was in a long-term relationship with a man (which he did announce publicly after the decision was released). In a Dec. 8 hearing on the motion to overturn Judge Walker's decision, the 9th Circuit panel seemed deeply skeptical that Judge Walker's ruling should be thrown out because of his orientation and relationship status. The 9th Circuit's decision today is an important victory for the assumption of impartiality that our judicial system is based on, and demonstrates that LGBT judges are just as fit to preside over cases pertaining to LGBT rights as are their heterosexual counterparts.

What comes next? The first issue on everyone's minds is whether same-sex couples can wed immediately. The answer is that it depends on whether a stay is issued in the case. After Judge Walker issued his decision, a stay on his ruling was also issued that kept Prop 8 in effect as a law until such time that another court struck it down, meaning California's same-sex couples have not been able to wed since his ruling. If the 9th Circuit panel or another court body issues a stay, same-sex couples cannot wed. Many legal observers expect a stay; however, it's not entirely certain.

The other issue on everyone's mind is: what comes next in terms of appeals? The losing side could appeal the decision in one of two ways. First, they could request what is called an en banc hearing. In most appellate courts, this involves the decision by a panel of judges (in this case, the three-judge panel reviewing the Perry v. Brown case) being reviewed by all the judges on the appeals court. In the 9th Circuit, however (by far the largest appellate court in the country), an en banc hearing involves 11 of the court's judges. In order for this review to occur, a majority of all active judges in the 9th Circuit must vote to rehear it. Many legal observers believe it is unlikely that the court would allow an en banc hearing. The losing party could then appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has discretion over which cases it decides to hear, and hears arguments in only about 1 percent of all petitions filed for certiorari (judicial review) each term, so there is no guarantee it would take up an appeal of Perry. If four Supreme Court Justices agree to hear the case, the Supreme Court will review the case.

You can find a full, detailed history of the Perry case, which Prop8TrialTracker.com has been following from the beginning, here. Check back at Prop8TrialTracker.com throughout the day for updates and analysis.

This post was co-written with Prop8TrialTracker.com's Jacob Combs.