Most people expected them to eventually hear arguments on the constitutionality of DOMA, but to the surprise of pretty much everyone, they have also agreed to hear the appeal case of Judge Walker's 2010 ruling on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 in California.
|Supreme Court Justices|
The short of it: potentially, the ruling on Prop 8 could set a precedent impacting gay marriage (good or bad) for a decade or more. Or... they could decide not to rule much of anything and leave things as is. Or, somewhere in between. It's all a bit complicated actually, so I've taken some time to sort it all out. If you care, read on!
The long of it: (you might want to grab a cup of coffee and make yourself comfortable)
CASE 1: CONSTITUTIONALITY OF DEFENSE OF MARRIAGE ACT
|Edith & Thea|
Although there have been multiple rulings in the lower courts that DOMA (law declaring that only a marriage between a man and a woman is recognized at the federal level) is unconstitutional, the one that the Court has decided to hear came about when Edith lost her partner Thea. They were together for 42 years, and finally able to legally marry in 2007. When Thea passed away, Edith was required to pay an estate tax of more than $350k because DOMA doesn't recognize her marriage on a federal level. If Edith's spouse had been male, she wouldn't have to pay a dime, according to DOMA. Edith appealed to the courts that DOMA is unconstitutional, and that her legal marriage should be treated the same as any other American's, under federal law.
Normally what happens, when someone challenges the law as unconstitutional... the federal government defends it, and then the Supreme Court gets to make the final call. What's unusual here is that President Obama's administration refuses to defend DOMA, and in fact encourages the Court to strike it down. So instead, a group of Republicans in Congress have stepped in to defend the law in place of the Executive Branch.
So first, the Court will decide whether or not that group has a right to defend the law. If they decide they do have the right, then the Court will rule on the constitutionality of DOMA. If they decide the group from Congress does not have the right, DOMA will presumably be invalidated, as the government who made the law has deemed it unconstitutional.
Either way, things are not looking so good for DOMA.
Having DOMA out of the way is a very good thing. It will improve the lives of all legally married gay couples in the U.S.. But it doesn't necessarily change anything for couples living in the 41 states where gay marriage is not legal.
Here's what could potentially change the lives of couples living in the other 41 states...
CASE 2: CONSTITUTIONALITY OF PROPOSITION 8 IN CALIFORNIA
|Judge Walker overturned Prop 8 in 2010|
In 2008, the state of California voted by referendum to ban gay marriage by a majority of Californians saying "yes" to Proposition 8 on the ballot. Two years later, that ban was challenged as "unconstitutional" by multiple same-sex couples suing the state, and Judge Walker ruled in favor of the ban being overturned (i.e. legalizing gay marriage in California), on the basis of the 14th Amendment of the United States: No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. (Section 1B, 14th Amendment)
The Supreme Court has decided to hear arguments on two different aspects of this case.
First, they want to make sure that it is their jurisdiction to make a ruling on this. Normally, it would be, except that Walker's decision is not being appealed by the State of California (the rightful appellant), instead it is being appealed by a group of California citizens who support "traditional marriage". The Government of CA refuses to defend the ban. If they decide that those citizens do not have the right to appeal the decision, then the overturning of Prop 8 stands, thus legalizing gay marriage in CA, and potentially setting a precedent for other states to use the 14th Amendment argument.
The second part of this case that the Supreme Court may decide to hear is the appeal of Walker's decision. If they decide to allow the group of citizens to appeal the decision, the Court will hear arguments to decide for themselves if it is unconstitutional for voters to limit marriage to a man & woman union. Ultimately, they would be deciding if the 14th Amendment provides the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry. This is potentially the most impactful of all of the possible Supreme Court rulings.
It's all going to come down to how they interpret the 14th Amendment (if the case even gets this far). Obviously the justices are aware that this ruling could potentially decide the fate of gay marriage for the next decade and beyond. They'll have to decide if "any person" covers people of all sexual orientations. They'll have to decide if "equal protection under the law" includes the right to marry. And if the 14th Amendment does provide for marriage, then does that mean that all states are mandated to recognize same sex marriage? If the 14th Amendment does not imply the right to marry, do states have to recognize the marriages or same sex couples from other states, even if it is not allowed according to their own laws? They may decide something in between, such as the 14th Amendment may include that right for same sex couples, but it is ultimately up to the states to decide.
Ok, my brain is fried. Can you see why it took me three weeks to pull this post together? There is a lot to think about here. The justices ultimately gave themselves an "out", saying that they also have the right to not decide anything at all.
No matter what happens, this is huge. This is what we've been waiting for. And marriage equality in the U.S. is likely to take a huge step (either forward, or backward) in 2013. Anyone else following along with all of this? What do you think is going to happen? Were you hopeful or worried when you heard the news that they'd be hearing these cases?
My primary sources were here, here and here. Pics gathered from google image searches.