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In a highly anticipated decision with potentially far-reaching implications in the national battle over marriage equality, a federal judge has struck down California's Proposition 8.
U.S. district judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled that the ballot measure violated both equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution in a 136-page opinion released Wednesday, nearly seven months after an unprecedented trial over marriage rights began in his San Francisco courtroom.
"Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license," Walker wrote in a decision deemed by many legal observers to be both straightforward and breathtaking in its scope.
"Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional," Walker wrote.
Walker issued a temporary stay of the judgment, however, pending a motion by Prop. 8 proponents, who appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Thursday. In a letter to Walker prior to the decision, attorney Charles J. Cooper wrote that another "window of same-sex marriage in California would cause irreparable harm."
Walker has asked for arguments from both sides regarding a stay of the decision to be submitted to the court by Friday but has not indicated whether there will be a hearing on the matter. Should the district judge deny a stay, it's likely that Prop. 8 proponents will seek one from the Ninth Circuit.
Lead attorneys Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, who brought the case last year on behalf of a gay male couple in Burbank and a lesbian couple in Berkeley who were denied marriage licenses, spoke shortly afterward outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco with Chad Griffin, founder and copresident of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which organized and helped finance of the suit.
Walker's decision "increases the stability and value of marriage to our society," Olson said outside the courthouse after the ruling was released. The state has no legitimate interest "in contributing to discriminate against any of its citizens," he said. "This is a victory for the American people – it’s a victory for our justice system."
Whether or not the decision is stayed, attorney Ted Boutrous, who argued the case for marriage equality alongside Olson and Boies, told The Advocate, "we're going to push for expedited treatment of this appeal, because every day that goes by, the rights of thousands of people are being injured—especially now that we have this powerful, powerful ruling."
The decision was released on the court website shortly after 2 p.m., though a leaked version went viral on the Internet shortly after 1 p.m. Pacific time. A link to the decision is available here.
On Wednesday the legal team and plaintiffs Kristin Perry, Sandy Stier, Paul Katami, and Jeff Zarrillo spoke to a large crowd at a West Hollywood park attended by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and country singer Chely Wright. "With this decision, our system worked," Perry told the crowd. "Our courts are supposed to protect our constitutional rights. Today, they did."
Legal observers had widely expected Walker to rule Prop. 8 unconstitutional, though an ultimate favorable decision by the U.S. Supreme Court remains uncertain, should the court eventually take the case.
National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter called the ruling "the most comprehensive, detailed decision addressing the constitutional rights of same-sex couples to affirmative recognition and support ever to be issued by a federal court."
Walker's decision addressed only the legal situation in California, where same-sex couples no longer have the right to marry and are instead offered domestic partnerships, which "do not provide the same social meaning as marriage," Walker wrote.
However, Minter said aspects of Walker's decision could apply to other state laws that bar same-sex couples from marrying or otherwise discriminate against LGBT people.
Tobias Wolff, a constitutional law professor who also advised the Obama '08 campaign on LGBT issues, called the decision "thrilling to read."
Wolff noted that Walker said from the very beginning of the trial that his main charge as a district court judge was to adjudicate the facts.
"The most important thing about this ruling is the extensive analysis that the judge offers of the facts that were put on trial," he said of the 80 findings of fact Walker made in his decision. "The judge concluded in a rather prosaic evidentiary ruling that the other side had not offered any legitimate testimony in support of their case."
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