WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court announced Friday that it would
enter the national debate over same-sex marriage, agreeing to hear a
pair of cases challenging state and federal laws that define
marriage to include only unions of a man and a woman.
One of the cases, from California, could establish or reject a
constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The justices also could
rule on narrower grounds that would apply only to marriages in
The second case, from New York, challenges a federal law that
requires the federal government to deny benefits to gay and lesbian
couples married in states that allow such unions.
The court's move comes against the backdrop of a rapid shift in
public attitudes about same-sex marriage, with recent polls
indicating that a majority of Americans support allowing such
unions. After last month's elections, the number of states
authorizing same-sex marriage increased by half, to nine.
The court's docket is now crowded with cases about the meaning of
equality, with the new cases joining ones on affirmative action in
higher education and the future of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Decisions in all of those cases are expected by June.
The new California case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144, was
filed in 2009 by Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, two lawyers who
were on opposite sides in the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v.
Gore, which settled the 2000 presidential election. The suit argued
that California's voters had violated the federal Constitution the
previous year when they overrode a decision of the state's Supreme
Court allowing same-sex marriages.
A federal judge in San Francisco agreed, issuing a broad decision
that said the Constitution required the state to allow same-sex
couples to marry. The decision has been stayed.
A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, also in San Francisco, affirmed the decision. But the
majority relied on narrower grounds that seemed calculated to avoid
Supreme Court review or, at least, attract the vote of the court's
presumed swing member, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt, writing for the majority, relied
heavily on a 1996 majority opinion from Justice Kennedy in a case
that struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that had banned
the passage of laws protecting gay men and lesbians. The voter
initiative in California, known as Proposition 8, had done something
similar, Judge Reinhardt wrote.
That reasoning, he added, meant that the ruling was confined to
"We do not doubt the importance of the more general questions
presented to us concerning the rights of same-sex couples to marry,
nor do we doubt that these questions will likely be resolved in
other states, and for the nation as a whole, by other courts," he