OAKLAND, Calif. - In a decision that makes California the 13th state where same-sex marriage is legal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that it has no authority to decide the case of Proposition 8, passed by voters in 2008 to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman. The decision then leaves in place U.S. District Judge Vaughan Walker's 2010 ruling that the voter-approved measure banning gay marriage in the state is unconstitutional.
When Proposition 8's legality was challenged, state officials refused to defend it, leaving further defense to a former southern California legislator and other supporters.
The Supreme Court's ruling pointed out that under the U.S. Constitution, federal courts are limited to deciding "actual cases or controversies ... in other words, the litigant must seek a remedy for a personal and tangible harm."
"Because we find that petitioners do not have standing, we have no authority to decide this case on the merits, and neither did the Ninth Circuit," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority opinion - leaving in place Judge Walker's ruling that the gay marriage ban was unconstitutional.
Supporters of marriage equality were jubilant. Former San Francisco mayor, and now California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who in 2004 instructed San Francisco city clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, said his city's celebration of diversity is "a core principle that defines our values in this city and state."
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, said that because of the court's ruling, "millions of Californians will be able to marry the person they love - with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with it."
Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, David Boies, one of the two attorneys arguing against Proposition 8, declared, "It's a wonderful day for our plaintiffs, it's a wonderful day for everyone around this country and California in particular, who wants to be able to marry the person they love. It's a wonderful day for America, because we have now taken this country another important step toward guaranteeing the promise that was in our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal, that all people have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Though Gov. Jerry Brown said the ruling would apply statewide, and instructed all county clerks and registrars to comply, Proposition 8 supporters are expected to claim the decision should apply just to Alameda and Los Angeles Counties where the lawsuit was filed by Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier of Berkeley, and Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo of Burbank - or even just to the two couples.
Proposition 8's defenders have 25 days to request a rehearing, and marriages are not expected to start before the second half of next month.
Analysts also point out that the high court's decision is technical and limited. It did not refer to same-sex marriage, but refused to rehear a 2010 trial court decision that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional "because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis ..."
For decades, marriage equality has been a contested issue in the state.
In May, 2008 the California Supreme Court voided a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, opening the way for same-sex couples to marry.
That November, voters passed Prop. 8. The next year, the two couples sued, saying the measure violated their civil rights under the federal Constitution.
In August, 2010, Judge Walker ruled that the measure violates the civil rights of gay and lesbian Californians. In February 2012, after several additional legal steps, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Walker's ruling.
Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.
Photo: Two partners hug after learning that Prop 8 was struck down. Jeff Chiu/AP