As most readers have heard, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court's ruling on Prop 8. I know it's hard as hell to keep track of all the cases and ballot measures (let alone understand them), so I've written a step-by-step guide/timeline that you don't need a JD to understand.
State and federal courts: the basic setup
First, California state courts have three levels:
1. Superior court (lowest level, where trials happen)
2. State appellate courts (also called "district courts;" middle level)
3. California Supreme Court (highest level)
Then we have the federal courts. Three levels there, too:
1. District courts (lowest level, where trials happen--not the same as #2 above, despite the name)
2. Federal appeals courts (also called "circuit courts," middle level)
3. U.S. Supreme Court
The California Supreme Court interprets California laws, deciding whether those laws violate the state constitution or the US Constitution. When it comes to the California Constitution, the California Supreme Court gets the final say. But not so for the U.S. Constitution; the federal courts get to have the final say over that.
So it's important to understand that there are two kinds of "constitutional" violations that people talk about--the state constitution and the federal constitution--and a different set of courts gets the final say over each one. Understanding all this will make it easier to follow my breakdown. Okay, here you go:
California Gay Marriage Timeline
2000: California voters pass Prop. 22, which is a state law saying that "marriage" means one man and one woman.
2004: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom issues same-sex marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite Prop. 22.
Anti-gay groups file lawsuits in SF superior court (state trial court), saying that Newsom's actions were illegal and the marriage licenses are invalid. Newsom says that Prop. 22 is unconstitutional, and that it's not illegal to violate an unconstitutional law.
2005: The SF superior court says that Prop 22 is illegal. Outlawing gay marriage is gender discrimination. The anti-gays immediately appeal to the state appellate court.
Before the state appellate court decides anything, the California legislature passes a bill saying same-sex marriages are allowed. But a few days later, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoes it, saying the court should decide.
2006: The state appellate court overturns the lower court's decision. It says that preventing gay marriage is not gender discrimination, that the state's interest in protecting the "traditional definition" of marriage is valid, and that the definition of marriage shouldn't be decided in court. Of course, the gay rights lawyers appeal (those activist gays!) to the California Supreme Court.
2007: The California legislature passes another bill allowing same-sex marriages. Schwarzenegger terminates this bill, too (HAHA, get it? 'Cause he's the TERMINATOR!? Ha… ha?).
2008: The California Supreme Court rules on the Prop 22 case, saying that marriage is a fundamental right, and that voters can't just sweep it away. After all, what if people voted to take away the freedom of speech? You can't just "vote away" a fundamental right. You have to actually amend the state or federal constitution.
So… the anti-gay folks do exactly that, and propose an amendment to the state constitution. (California lets its state constitution be amended by popular vote.) This is what's known as Prop 8. It's different from Prop 22, because Prop 22 was just a law; it didn't change the state constitution.
Prop 8 passes. The California constitution now says that "marriage" means one man and one woman. (Interestingly, this means that trans people who legally change their sex can get married, as long as it's to a person of the opposite sex. Hmm... a rare case of trans "privilege!")
2009: Gay rights lawyers file a suit in federal district court (the lowest level of federal court) saying that the California constitution now violates the US Constitution. (See, states can say basically anything in their constitutions, as long as it doesn't violate the US Constitution.) So that's how a state decision got into federal court.
2010: There's a trial in federal district court. The judge (Vaughn Walker) rules that the state has no "rational basis" for denying a right (marriage) to a particular group (gays). Even though sexual orientation doesn't get special constitutional protection under the law like race and gender does, you can't single people out for no good reason and deny them a right.
Anti-gay groups appeal to the Ninth Circuit (the federal appeals court), saying that Judge Walker got it wrong, and that there are good reasons for denying marriage to gays. They also say that since Walker is gay himself, he was too biased to hear the case.
2012: Today's decision: the Ninth Circuit upholds the ruling. They say that Judge Walker was fine to stay on the case (duh). The big question is whether there was a rational reason to take away a right from a specific group of people. The decision goes through all the supposed reasons for Prop 8 and says, come ON--banning gays from getting married doesn't promote ANY of these goals. The only goal it DOES promote is harming a particular group, and that's not a legitimate/rational reason for a law.
Next, the anti-gays will undoubtedly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may or may not take the case. In a future post, I might talk a little more about this. But for now, let's all bask in the happy afterglow of the Ninth Circuit's decision!