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Ninth Circuit Upholds Lower Ruling, Strikes Down Prop 8

The 3-judge Ninth Circuit panel issues a multi-faceted ruling on the Proposition 8 case, rejecting the argument to vacate Judge Walker’s decision striking down Prop 8, granting the proponents standing to appeal, and holding that Walker was correct in declaring Prop 8 unconstitutional.  At the center of their ruling, the judges write, “By using their initiative power to target a minority group and withdraw a right that it possessed, without a legitimate reason for doing so, the people of California violated the Equal Protection Clause [of the federal Constitution].  We hold Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional on this ground.”

While the rulings on standing and the motion to vacate are unanimous, the ruling on constitutionality is divided on an 2-1 vote, with Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Michael Hawkins voting to strike Prop 8 down, and Judge N. Randy Smith voting to uphold the marriage equality ban.  In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit avoids following Judge Walker’s broad recognition of a fundamental right to marriage equality under the U.S. Constitution, arguing instead that there is in fact no need for the panel to address whether the Constitution contains such an inherent right, since Judge Walker’s ruling can be upheld on other grounds.

Instead, they focus much more narrowly on the specific situation in California, in which gays and lesbians had been given full marriage rights which were then taken away.  The appeals panel rules that it is unconstitutional to take away rights from a group that have already been granted when the reason for removing such rights is moral animus.  Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit panel’s decision stresses how important the word and designation of “marriage” is, and maintains that civil unions and domestic partnerships that withhold the societal designation of marriage are not equal to full marriage rights.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit panel declines to determine whether or not gays and lesbians constitute a suspect class and are therefore entitled to strict scrutiny.  Instead, the panel relies on the more deferential rational basis test to consider Prop 8’s constitutionality, holding that Prop 8 does not pass even that more lenient rule.  In his dissent, Judge Smith writes that the argument made by the proponents of Prop 8 at oral argument that the law represents California’s interest in promoting responsible procreation among heterosexual couples does represent a rational basis for the law.  Under this standard of review, he argues, Prop 8 is constitutional.

In its decision, the appeals panel maintains the stay on Judge Walker’s ruling, meaning that couples in California continue to be prohibited from marrying.

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