Today in 2004: California Supreme Court voids same-sex marriages

August 12, 2011

Today in Legal HistoryOn August 12, 2004, the California Supreme Court voided all of the same-sex marriage licenses issued in San Francisco earlier that year.

The San Francisco marriages were the first chapter in California’s recent gay marriage saga.

It all started on February 10, 2004, when, after prompting by Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco, the county clerk designed a gender-neutral marriage license application and license.

The mayor, Gavin Newsom, said that he was inspired by President George W. Bush’s 2004 State of the Union Address, during which Bush voiced his strong support for outlawing same-sex marriage.

Subsequently, on February 12, the county clerk began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Unlike in New York where the practice was recently legalized, same-sex marriages weren’t legally valid at the time.

It didn’t take long for legal challenges to follow.

The next day, two separate lawsuits were filed in San Francisco County Superior Court seeking to halt the city’s issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples (both requests for immediate stay were denied).

On February 25, three San Francisco residents filed suit, with their legal help coming from the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization.

Two days later, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer filed suit.

The California Supreme Court consolidated these cases, and issued an order on March 11 asking city officials to show good cause as to why they were issuing same-sex marriage licenses against state law, and directing a stop to the practice in the meantime.

After oral arguments on May 25, the court handed down its ruling.

The long Lockyer v. City and County of San Francisco opinion held that county officials had overstepped their authority in issuing the licenses, and that all of the marriages were void.

Notably, the opinion was careful to avoid the consideration of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

SF Mayor Gavin Newsom

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom

Less than four years later, though, the question was addressed anyhow.

In re Marriage Cases, decided in May 2008, was essentially a continuation of Lockyer that sought resolution of the constitutionality questions that the California Supreme Court had skirted four years earlier.

The ruling made two significant holdings.

First, that laws discriminating against sexual orientation are subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level of judicial review.

Second, that laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples are unconstitutional.

This ruling directly led to the creation of Proposition 8, a ballot proposition and constitutional amendment providing that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

As many remember, Proposition 8 passed in the 2008 elections, overruling the second holding of In re Marriage Cases (but preserving the first).

Prop 8, of course, immediately saw legal challenges.

The California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8, but a federal court declared it unconstitutional.

Currently, the federal ruling has been stayed pending appeal, so Prop 8 is still in effect.

However, the case is widely believed to eventually land in the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket, and a ruling from the Supreme Court will affect not only California law, but all state law in the country.

If such does eventually become reality, the nation would owe its laws’ change to Mayor Newsom, who initiated the long legal battle seven years ago.

Was this Newsom’s intent?

Regardless of the answer, it’s significant that such a massive national change could be brought about by a single mayor a month into his tenure.