In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling undercutting California's same-sex marriage ban, the Brown administration told county officials this morning the ruling applies statewide - with all 58 counties required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples once a lower court stay is lifted.
"After years of struggle, the U.S. Supreme Court today has made same-sex marriage a reality in California," Gov. Jerry Brown said in a prepared statement.
"In light of the decision, I have directed the California Department of Public Health to advise the state's counties that they must begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in California as soon as the Ninth Circuit confirms the stay is lifted," the Democratic governor added.
In a letter to county clerks and records, the Department of Public Health said that "same-sex couples will once again be allowed to marry in California." However, the letter cautioned clerks, in bold type, to issue no marriage licenses to same-sex couples until a stay is lifted by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We do not know when the Ninth Circuit will issue this order, but it could take a month or more," the letter said. "County clerks and recorders should not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples until this order is issued."
More than 18,000 same-sex marriage licenses were issued in California before voters passed Proposition 8 in 2008. The measure was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker in 2010, a decision the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld. However, same-sex marriages have been on hold while proponents of the initiative appealed.
Proponents of Proposition 8 vowed to continue defending the measure.
In a prepared statement, Folsom lawyer Andy Pugno, the proposition's author, said the Supreme Court's ruling "does not directly resolve questions about the scope of the trial court's order" and that "we will continue to defend Prop. 8 and seek its enforcement until such time as there is a binding statewide order that renders Prop. 8 unenforceable."
In a 5-4 decision this morning, the Supreme Court ruled the supporters of Prop. 8 lacked legal standing to defend the measure.
Vik Amar, a law professor at University of California, Davis, said the only potential legal obstacle remaining for same-sex marriages could arise if a county clerk balked at Gov. Brown's directive to start issuing licenses once a legal stay in the Prop. 8 case is lifted.
"I think the only real fly left in the ointment, possibly, is a county clerk from some conservative county arguing that he's not bound by Judge Walker's ruling because he's not subject to the control or supervision of the governor or any other state official," Amar said.
If a clerk argued that his or her election to office provides independence from the governor, and a court sustained that view, county clerks statewide would not be bound by Brown's directive - except for Los Angeles and Alameda because they were involved in the Prop. 8 suit, Amar said.
"But I imagine that a lot of other county clerks who aren't bound would say, 'Well, we feel bound so we're going to issue licenses anyway,'" Amar said. "It could get messy, and I don't know what's going to happen. I don't even know if there are any county clerks who are going to object."
Brown, declined to defend Proposition 8 in court, had been preparing for the Supreme Court's eventual ruling weeks ago, asking Attorney General Kamala Harris for a legal opinion about the scope of the decision.
In a June 3 letter to Brown, Harris said such an order would apply statewide.
"Under the circumstances of this case, we conclude that the injunction would apply statewide to all 58 counties," she wrote. "We further conclude that DPH can and should instruct county officials that when the district court's injunction goes into effect, they must resume issuing marriage licenses to and recording the marriages of same-sex couples."
Although such an order as the Supreme Court issued would "not expressly require state officials to direct counties to issue marriage licenses," Harris wrote, to do so is within the administration's authority and "necessary to avoid confusion and ensure uniform application of the state's marriage laws."
The appeal court's lifting of its stay could take 25 days or more, though Harris appealed to the court to do so more quickly.
"As soon as they lift that stay, marriages are on," she said. "The wedding bells will ring."
The Bee's Jim Sanders contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This post was updated at 10:10 a.m. to include Amar's remarks and at 12:45 p.m. to include Harris' remarks.
PHOTO: Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference at the Capitol on Jan. 10, 2013. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton