Ending months of anticipation, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled on Friday it would take up litigation challenging California’s Proposition 8 and one case challenging the Defense of Marriage Act.
Justices decided to take up the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry, which seeks to overturn the state constitutional amendment California voters passed in 2008 that took away marriage rights for same-sex couples.
They also decided to take up Windsor v. United States, litigation challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. That lawsuit was filed by Edith Windsor, a New York widow who was forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes in 2009 upon the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer.
The court made the news in an orders list published Friday following a conference the justices held on the same day. Four justices must vote affirmatively to grant a writ of certiorari in any particular case, but that vote isn’t public information.
Windsor, 83, expressed excitement in a statement that her lawsuit would be the one to challenge DOMA at the Supreme Court. Her lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union along with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP and other groups.
“When Thea and I met nearly 50 years ago, we never could have dreamed that the story of our life together would be before the Supreme Court as an example of why gay married couples should be treated equally, and not like second-class citizens,” Windsor said. “While Thea is no longer alive, I know how proud she would have been to see this day. The truth is, I never expected any less from my country.”
This news that the court will take up the Perry case is disappointing to many who had hoped justices would decline to hear the litigation and allow a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision striking down the measure to stand.
John Eastman, chair of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, said the decision of the Supreme Court to take up the Prop 8 lawsuit suggests justices are poised to reverse decisions from lower courts against the same-sex marriage ban.
“We believe it is a strong signal that the Court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8,” Eastman said. “That is the right outcome based on the law and based on the principle that voters hold the ultimate power over basic policy judgments and their decisions are entitled to respect.”
Still, LGBT advocates expressed excitement that the Supreme Court has decided to take up the Prop 8 case and has the opportunity to rule against California’s same-sex marriage ban once and for all.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin – who also co-founded the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization behind the Prop 8 lawsuit – said the decision marks another “milestone” day for same-sex couples.
“The passage of Proposition 8 caused heartbreak for so many Americans, but today’s announcement gives hope that we will see a landmark Supreme Court ruling for marriage this term,” Griffin said. “As the Court has ruled 14 times in the past, marriage is a fundamental right and I believe they will side with liberty, freedom and equality, moving us toward a more perfect union as they have done in the past.”
The decision means litigation will continue at the Supreme Court and the court will rule on them by the middle of next year. Justices can affirm a Ninth Circuit decision striking down Prop 8 or uphold the anti-gay measure as constitutional. For DOMA, the court could either uphold the federal recognition of same-sex marriage, or strike it down and allow federal benefits to flow to same-sex couples.
No news was made on three other DOMA cases before the Supreme Court: the consolidated case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services; Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management and Golinski v. United States. If justices declined to hear the cases at the Friday conference, it would be announced in another orders list set for publication on Monday.
Doug NeJaime, who’s gay and a professor at Loyola Law School, said justices may have elected to take up the Windsor case — the only DOMA lawsuit in which a federal appeals court ruled against DOMA by applying heightened scrutiny — to apply that same standard to Prop 8.
“If sexual orientation classifications merit heightened scrutiny, as the Second Circuit held, all laws that discriminate against lesbians and gay men – including state marriage prohibitions like Prop. 8 – would be suspect,” NeJaime said.
But NeJaime added taking up both Windsor and Perry may also mean justices see “a material distinction” between a federal law denying recognition to same-sex marriage and a state law preventing same-sex couples from marrying. That could mean the court will split the difference in its rulings, finding DOMA unconstitutional but upholding Prop 8.
In addition to announcing it would take up the litigation, the Supreme Court also asks parties involved in both cases to brief and argue certain questions.
For the Prop 8 case, the parties must answer whether proponents of the same-sex marriage ban have standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution to defend the same-sex marriage ban in court. Whether anti-gay groups, such as Protect Marriage, have standing to defend the law in court has been a long-standing issue in the case. California Gov. Jerry Brown and California Attorney General Kamala Harris have refused to defend the law in court, leaving anti-gay groups left as the one’s responsible to defend the law.
For the DOMA cases, the court asks parties to answer two questions. The first is whether the executive branch agreement with the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals that DOMA is unconstitutional deprives the Supreme Court of jurisdiction to hear the case. In February 2011, the Obama administration announced that DOMA is unconstitutional and it would no longer defend the law in court.
The second question related to DOMA is whether the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group has standing to defend the law. After the Obama administration announced it would no longer defend DOMA, House Republicans under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) decided to take up defense of the law in the administration’s stead.
The Supreme Court has continually put off making a decision on whether to take up the Prop 8 and DOMA litigation. The cases were first docketed for the conference on Sept. 24, but made no decision at that time. The cases were then docketed for the Nov. 20 conference, but then rescheduled for Nov. 30. No decision was made at that later date. For the recent conference on Nov. 30, it was speculated justices put off making a decision because they needed to more time to decide which combination of the four DOMA cases it wanted to take up.
The next step in the process is for the petitioner — or the party that made an appeal to the Supreme Court — to file opening briefs. Generally, the deadline to do this is 45 days after the court has decided to take up a case. Opposing parties have 30 days to respond, and the petitioner has another 30 days to respond to that. Others parties during this time may also file friend-of-the-court briefs before the court.
Oral arguments will be scheduled by the clerk’s office and likely be announced next week. They’re expected to take place in late Winter or Spring of next year. The court must render a decision before its term ends in June.
No news was also made in another LGBT-related case before the Supreme Court related to Arizona domestic partner benefits. Gov. Jan Brewer appealed to court an injunction barring her from enforcing a law taking away benefits Arizona state employees with same-sex partners. As with the other DOMA cases, if justices have declined to hear the case at the Friday conference, their decision would be announced in another orders list on Monday.