Proposition 8 & DOMA – Marriage Equality in California

Proposition 8 – Perry v. Schwarzenegger

Following the holding of the California Supreme Court in May 2008 in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case that state statutes limiting marriage to opposite-sex applicants violated the California Constitution, same sex couples flocked to California to marry. But in November of 2008, California voters adopted Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that precluded same sex marriage. In response, couples denied marriage licenses filed several lawsuits challenging the validity of the amendment and arguing that Prop 8 violates the U.S. Constitutional guarantee of due process and equal protection.

On August 4, 2010, Judge Vaughn Walker announced his ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, overturning Proposition 8 based on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Walker determined that California had no rational basis or vested interest in denying gays and lesbians marriage licenses, stating that:

“An initiative measure adopted by the voters deserves great respect. The considered views and opinions of even the most highly qualified scholars and experts seldom outweigh the determinations of the voters. When challenged, however, the voters’ determinations must find at least some support in evidence. This is especially so when those determinations enact into law classifications of persons. Conjecture, speculation and fears are not enough. Still less will the moral disapprobation of a group or class of citizens suffice, no matter how large the majority that shares that view. The evidence demonstrated beyond serious reckoning that Proposition 8 finds support only in such disapproval. As such, Proposition 8 is beyond the constitutional reach of the voters or their representatives.”

Judge walker noted that Prop 8 was based on traditional notions of marriage and moral disapproval of homosexuality, and neither of those are a valid legal basis for discrimination. He also pointed out that gays and lesbians are the type of minority that strict scrutiny was designed to protect.

Proposition 8 supporters appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which agreed to stay Judge Walker’s ruling, pending the appeal. From Judge Walker’s decision through November 2011 a series of appeals related to the standing made their way through the Ninth Circuit hierarchy and the California Supreme Court which held that non-governmental proponents of Proposition 8 have the legal standing to defend it, stating that “[I]n the past official proponents of initiative measures in California have uniformly been permitted to participate … in numerous lawsuits in California courts challenging the validity of the initiative measure the proponents sponsored.”

Any final decision by the Ninth Circuit panel may be reheard by an en banc court of 11 active judges, but only if a majority of all of the active judges in the Ninth Circuit vote to rehear it. If subsequently the United States Supreme Court grants review, the process may take years.


In August 2008, Karen Golinski and her partner of 18 years, Amy Cunninghis, gathered with family and friends in the rotunda of San Francisco City Hall and exchanged wedding vows.

Golinski and Cunninghis wed before the California voters enacted Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, and their marriage remains legal in California. Golinski, a federal employee as staff attorney for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, then sought to add her spouse to her health plan. But federal agencies rejected her request, citing DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) — even though her boss, 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, concluded she was entitled to the benefits. Golinski sued the government, arguing that DOMA discriminates against legally married same-sex couples by depriving them of the same rights, from health benefits to tax status, as heterosexual couples.

Although one could be forgiven for thinking that Attorney General Eric Holder does not actually exist given his complete failure to prosecute the white collar Wall Street criminals largely responsible for the financial crisis, he has shown some spine on this issue, claiming that the administration considers Section 3 of DOMA to be unconstitutional. Section 3 states that the federal government will not, for any federal purposes, recognize any same-sex marriage. Holder says the administration believes laws disfavoring persons based on sexual orientation should have to pass the most stringent judicial review–heightened scrutiny, and that the administration would argue so in two cases challenging DOMA in the 2nd Circuit.

What a long strange trip it’s been. Both cases may be one of several to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of marriage equality.

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