WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday will confront two distinct gay marriage cases, which together pose some very groundbreaking questions. Heres a rundown.
Q. What are the cases?
A. On Tuesday morning, the court has scheduled 60 minutes of oral argument in Hollingsworth v. Perry. This involves a challenge to Californias Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages that voters adopted in 2008. Opponents challenged the law and a federal appeals court eventually ruled it to be unconstitutional. Supporters asked for the Supreme Court to review the ruling.
On Wednesday morning, the court has scheduled an unusually long 110 minutes of argument in United States v. Windsor. This case challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that prohibits myriad federal benefits from going to gay married couples.
Q. Will the court decide whether the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage?
A. Not necessarily.
The courts nine justices have a wide spectrum of potential choices. They can punt in the Proposition 8 case, by deciding that the conservatives who support the ballot measure lack the standing to take legal action. That would leave intact the appellate court decision striking down Proposition 8, though with some uncertain long-term consequences.
Alternatively, the justices could rule very narrowly, in a way that confines the decision only to California couples, or possibly to couples in several other states, as well.
Or, the justices could issue a sweeping ruling that the Constitution protects or doesnt protect individual rights nationwide to enter into a same-sex marriage.
Q. But how could the justices confine their ruling to California? This is the U.S. Supreme Court, after all.
A. The court could follow the lead of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down Proposition 8 for a very state-specific reason. The California Supreme Court in May 2008 had recognized same-sex marriage rights, and then voters removed those rights in November 2008 by approving the ballot measure.
The federal appellate court, stressing the unique and strictly limited nature of its ruling, concluded in February 2012 that the people may not employ the initiative power to single out a disfavored group for unequal treatment and strip them, without a legitimate justification, of a right as important as the right to marry. The Supreme Court could follow suit.
Q. Could the court ruling affect more than California, but still not immediately cover all 50 states?
The Obama administration has proposed what some call the eight-state solution. This legally deft proposal urges the court to protect same-sex marriage specifically in the eight states that ban gay marriages, but which accept gay civil unions.
Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island, like California, recognize civil unions, but not gay marriages. The Obama administration argues that this contrast violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection, given how marriage confers a special validation of the relationship between two individuals and conveys a message to society that domestic partnerships or civil unions cannot match.
Q. Whats the Defense of Marriage Act case about?
A. Its about whether Congress can deny federal benefits to same-sex couples who are married under state law.