The ruling is ambiguous. One thing is clear, the Supreme Court basically threw the case out, overturning lower federal court decisions in the process.
Gay Marriage advocates are cheering that the decision allows California to resume same-sex marriages. Their claim is that the court opinion dismisses the Ninth Federal Appellate Court's jurisdiction to hear the case.
Others read the decision differently. If you read the ruling and the majority opinion(s), it appears as though the high court threw out all federal court decisions on the basis they had no jurisdiction.
Here is Chief Justice Roberts' summary in the majority opinion:
We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to. We decline to do so for the first time here. Because petitioners have not satisfied their burden to demonstrate standing to appeal the judgment of the District Court, the Ninth Circuit was without jurisdiction to consider the appeal. The judgment of the Ninth Circuit is vacated, and the case is remanded with instructions to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.Chief Justice Roberts, however, upheld this as a State-Level issue with state-level jurisdiction.
The California Supreme Court’s reasons for deciding that state law authorizes petitioners to defend Proposition 8. See post, at 3–5. Wedo not “disrespect” or “disparage” those reasons. Post, at 12. Nor do we question California’s sovereign right to maintain an initiative process, or the right of initiative proponents to defend their initiatives in California courts.Kennedy echoed his views on the state's rights issue that he stated in the majority opinion for the DOMA case:
It is for California, not this Court, to determine whether and to what extent the Elections Code provisions are instructive and relevant in determining the authority of proponents to assert the State’s interest in post-enactment judicial proceedings. And it is likewise not for this Court to say that a State must determine the substance and meaning of its laws by statute, or by judicial decision, or by a combination of the two.
It is the product of the California Constitution and the California Elections Code. There is no basis for this Court to set aside the California Supreme Court’s determination of State law.The Supreme Court of California explained that its holding was consistent with recent decisions from other States.
Here is the point of contention. After the Federal District Court decided the case at its level, a private citizen took up the case on behalf of the State of California. The private citizens did so because they had defended California's constitutional amendment in the District Court that ruled prop. 8 unconstitutional at the federal level. That district court enjoined the officials who passed and executed the amendment as defendants.
So, in reality, the District Court decision was against Hollingsworth, the very party that the Supreme Court held could not represent the case in the federal courts.
Therein lies the ambiguous portion of the opinion. The Supreme Court ruling vacated federal jurisdiction and remanded the case back to California. That is being interpreted two ways. Some interpret that to mean the District Court ruling holds. Others see this and interpret it to mean that the California Supreme Court ruling that this was a lawful amendment to their state constitution holds, and federal courts have no jurisdiction, meaning the District Court decision is, potentially, also vacated. However, recall Roberts' words. He specifically named the Ninth Appellate Court.
The ruling was a 5-4 split decision that defied party lines. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia joined three "liberal" justices in the majority. Sotomeyer joined Kennedy, Thomas and Alito in the dissent.
Concerned parties should read the entire decision, to include the ruling order, the majority opinion, and the dissent and make up their own minds. After seven readings, the ruling isn't any more clear to this author.
Implications On States Banning Same-Sex Marriage
The simple answer is that the Prop. 8 ruling will have no direct, immediate bearing on state-level bans of same-sex marriage. Kennedy's majority opinion in the DOMA case as well as his dissent in this case still lean towards the issue being one of state jurisdiction and not federal. The majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts does not appear to refute or rebut that opinion.
It could mean that same-sex marriage could be legislated and either legalized in California, or it may remain illegal. The state may decide to seek refining its constitutional amendment (created by Prop. 8). In other states, the decision has no bearing at this time. Should same-sex couples harmed, directly, by their state's laws or constitutional amendments take the case before the federal courts, the future standings would remain in the decisions in those potential future cases.
Same-sex marriage remains legal in 12 states. It remains ambiguous in California. In 37 other states, it remains illegal. Those 37 states will not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.