In a major lift for proponents of California's same-sex marriage ban, the California Supreme Court ruled this morning that they have legal standing under state law to defend the measure in court.
The opinion is expected to increase the likelihood that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will rule the proponents of Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008, have authority to defend the measure, allowing the case to move forward.
The California Supreme Court concluded, "When the public officials who ordinarily defend a challenged state law or appeal a judgment invalidating the law decline to do so ... the official proponents of a voter-approved initiative measure are authorized to assert the state's interest in the initiative's validity, enabling the proponents to defend the constitutionality of the initiative and to appeal a judgment invalidating the initiative."
The state court's opinion isn't binding, but it was solicited by the federal appeals court before that court considers constitutional merits of the case. The appeals court had previously rejected a bid by Imperial County for legal standing to defend Proposition 8. If it had ruled that proponent ProtectMarriage.com did not have legal standing, the appeal might have been stopped short.
The state court ruled the proponents of initiatives in California have legal standing to defend the measures they back, even when the state's elected officials decline to do so.
"The court rescued the initiative process from being fundamentally undermined," said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Harold Johnson, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of proponents, in a statement. "The court recognized that when voters exercise their right to enact a law or constitutional amendment by initiative, that measure deserves a defense when challenged."
"It's a mixed bag," said Ken Pierce, president of Sacramento-based Equality Action Now, who awaited the decision with other gay rights activists at Head Hunters restaurant. "Basically what this says is our fight continues. Other states are getting marriage equality while California is sitting and languishing."
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 last year, ruling it unconstitutional. The issue of standing became significant when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, now governor, declined to defend the measure in court.
The opinion follows two legal defeats for the proponents of Proposition 8. A federal judge rejected the proponents' argument that Walker's decision should be overturned because he didn't disclose he is gay and in a long-term relationship, and another federal judge last month denied a bid by the supporters of Proposition 8 to conceal the identities its campaign donors.
The Bee's Peter Hecht contributed to this report.