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California Supreme Court to issue same-sex marriage decision today

May 26, 2009|Rong-Gong Lin II and Maura Dolan

LOS ANGELES AND SAN FRANCISCO — What is being decided by the California Supreme Court?

The state's top court will rule on whether to uphold or strike down Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The justices will also decide whether the state will continue to recognize the estimated 18,000 same-sex marriages carried out in 2008.

How did we get to this point?

After San Francisco officials began allowing same-sex couples to wed there in 2004, the courts intervened, invalidating the marriages on grounds that local officials had overstepped their authority.

But in May 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state Constitution protects a fundamental "right to marry" that extends to same-sex couples.

That made California the second state in the union, after Massachusetts, to permit same-sex marriage.

About 18,000 gay and lesbian couples married between June and November, when voters approved Proposition 8, which amended the state Constitution to recognize marriage as only between a man and woman.

Opponents of Proposition 8 appealed to the California Supreme Court to overturn the ballot measure. They contend that the proposition changed the tenets of the state Constitution and therefore amounted to a revision, which can only be placed on the ballot by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature; Proposition 8 reached the ballot after a signature drive.

What do legal experts expect the court to do?

Based on comments the justices made at a hearing earlier this year, most legal experts expect the court to uphold Proposition 8 but continue to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples wed before the November election.

If the court upholds Proposition 8, what happens next?

State officials would continue to prohibit issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Supporters of same-sex marriage, however, are expected to go back to the ballot box as early as 2010 with a constitutional amendment recognizing same-sex marriage.

If Proposition 8 is upheld, would that affect the state's domestic partnership law, which gives same-sex couples the legal rights of marriage?

No. State law surrounding domestic partnerships is separate from the issue of allowing same-sex couples to marry. There is no dispute about the legality of domestic partnerships.

After the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that same-sex couples could marry, the state also began to recognize same-sex couples married out of state.

If Proposition 8 is upheld, would California continue to recognize those couples as married?

That's a question the California Supreme Court will decide.

How have other states handled same-sex marriage?

Most states do not recognize same-sex marriage, either by state law or constitutional amendment. The federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage. Some states, mostly on the West Coast and in the Northeast, offer same-sex couples civil unions or domestic partnerships, giving each partner some of the legal benefits granted to spouses, such as the ability to file joint income tax returns and receive spousal health insurance benefits from government agencies.

Five states now allow same-sex couples to marry: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Maine. In New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey, lawmakers are considering legalizing same-sex marriage. In Iowa and Maine, opponents of same-sex marriage say they plan to use the ballot box to overturn decisions to legalize same-sex marriage.

What are some tips for reading the state Supreme Court's decision?

The majority decision should be revealed in the first or second page of the ruling and reiterated in its last paragraph. Separate concurring and dissenting opinions would follow.

Counting votes may be tricky because the court is dealing with three different legal issues: whether Proposition 8 amounts to an impermissible revision of the state Constitution; the attorney general's challenge contending that marriage is an "inalienable" right that can't be taken away without compelling justification; and the fate of existing same-sex marriages.

The court's vote on the revision issue, for example, will probably differ from its vote on whether existing marriages should continue to be recognized by the state.

Justices who disagree with the majority file dissents. If they agree with only part of the majority decision, they file an opinion called a partial concurrence and dissent.

During oral argument in March, every justice expressed support for upholding existing marriages. Justice Carlos R. Moreno indicated that he believed Proposition 8 was an illegal revision, a sign that he could dissent on that question.

Moreno might be joined by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a former civil rights lawyer who stressed that the court was dealing with a novel legal question. Werdegar, however, did not join Moreno in voting to put the measure on hold pending the court's ruling.

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ron.lin@latimes.com

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Times' coverage of Prop. 8 ruling

The California Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on Proposition 8 this morning at 10 am. The ruling will be available at courtinfo.ca.gov/courts/supreme. Latimes.com will have extensive coverage throughout the day, including:

* Times reporter Rong-Gong Lin II answers reader questions about the decision during a live chat that will begin when the ruling is released.

* Analysis from Times legal affairs reporter Maura Dolan, who covers the California Supreme Court.

* Dispatches from across California gauging reaction to the decision.

* Interactive timelines and maps charting the history of gay marriage in the United States.

* Details on how each state Supreme Court justice has stood on the gay marriage question.

* A Proposition 8 forum where readers can offer their views.

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