All eyes will be on the U.S. Supreme Court next week when it could announce whether it will take up high-profile LGBT-related cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8—and the results of those decisions could have an immediate impact on the marriage rights of same-sex couples.
On Monday, justices are scheduled to hold their first conference to decide cases they will consider when they reconvene in October following their summer recess. Among the cases docketed for this meeting is federal litigation challenging Prop 8, now known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, and one of the cases challenging Section 3 of DOMA, Windsor v. United States.
Justices can decide to take up a case, decline to hear it or put off the decision on considering the lawsuit for a future conference. It takes a vote of four justices to grant a writ of certiorari (to take up a case) but the decision will be put off if any one justice wants more time to decide.
The decision on the Prop 8 case is of particular note because if the court decides against taking up the case and lets stand an appeals court decision against the same-sex marriage ban, gay couples would once again have the right to marry in the nation’s most populous state immediately following a mandate from the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals.
But if the Supreme Court decides to take up the case, the ban would remain in effect until the justices make their own ruling in the lawsuit. It’s possible the court could make a decision saying lower courts erred in overturning Prop 8. For the same-sex marriage ban to come to an end at that point, another lawsuit coming up from the district courts or repeal of Prop 8 at the ballot would be necessary.
Jennifer Pizer, legal director for the Williams Institute, said while she thinks the court is likely to take up cases related to DOMA, it’s a “much harder guess” whether justices will decide to hear the Prop 8 litigation.
“There might well be four justices that disagree with what the Ninth Circuit held, but I think it would be challenging for them probably—as it is for everybody else who’s watching the court—to wonder where a fifth vote might go,” Pizer said. “So I think it’s even odds that the court will not review in Perry.”
Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said in the event that the Supreme Court decides not to hear the Prop 8 case, gay couples should wait for the mandate from the Ninth Circuit before marrying in California.
“My advice to people is plan a nice wedding as opposed to running that day to go get married because there’s always some risk for couples that get married and 10 years split up, one might say, ‘You didn’t really get legally married because the injunction wasn’t in place yet and Prop 8 was still the law and they shouldn’t have married us,’” Davidson said. “Although I think that argument would lose, people don’t need to take on potentially having to fight about that later. If they just wait until the mandate, there won’t be any question.”
There could be an advantage for the LGBT community if the Supreme Court takes up the lawsuit because it could produce a ruling that would affect not only California, but all states with same-sex marriage bans throughout the country. Still, this level of examination bring a new scope of review to the Prop 8 lawsuit because the Ninth Circuit was limited in the way it restricted its reasoning to California.
Pizer said the Supreme Court could rule with a larger scope when considering the constitutionality of Prop 8, but such an evaluation would be unlikely given the limited nature of the Ninth Circuit ruling.
“I think it’s extremely unlikely that there would be a ruling either calling in question all the marriage restrictions of all the states that have them, or on the flip-side, holding that marriage absolutely as a matter of federal law must be restricted just to different-sex couples,” Pizer said.
“The things that could be done on the more extreme ends of something favorable or unfavorable to same-sex couples is not so likely.”
The situation is slightly different for the DOMA lawsuits because the Windsor case is the only one that has been fully briefed and docketed for the Sept. 24 conference. The court may not issue a decision on reviewing DOMA until the full range of lawsuits challenging the anti-gay law have been scheduled for consideration.
More DOMA-related cases haven’t yet been set for consideration even though the high court has been asked to consider them. They’re the consolidated case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services, the only lawsuit in which an appeals court has ruled against DOMA, as well as Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management and Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management.
Davidson said the Supreme Court could also wait to make a decision on whether to hear the Prop 8 lawsuit until making a decision on whether to hear the DOMA cases.
“Different issues in the cases, but they might say, ‘Well, let’s think about all these at the same time to think about whether we should grant review in both kinds of cases or one, and which order,” Davidson said.