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In another 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court left a challenge to the legality of California’s Proposition 8 intact on technical grounds.
The votes defied the usual ideological categorizations, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan. The dissent was authored by Justice Kennedy, joined by Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Sonia Sotomayor.
In 2008, California voters amended the state’s constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman with Proposition 8. Although the constitutionality of Proposition 8 was upheld by the state courts, two same-sex coupled filed suit in Federal District Court. Several state officials, including the governor and the attorney-general, were formally named as defendants in the case, but they declined to defend the proposition. The district court subsequently declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional after a 12-day bench trial.
The state government also declined to appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the proponents of Proposition 8 attempted to lodge an appeal in their stead. In response, the Court of Appeals asked the California Supreme Court to weigh in on whether or not the proponents had standing to appeal. The California Supreme Court responded in the affirmative, and so the Court of Appeals that states have the sovereign right to decide who can represent their interests. However, the appeals court ultimately affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that Proposition 8 violated the constitution’s Equal Protections Clause.
In today’s ruling, the United States Supreme Court held that proponents of Proposition 8 did not have standing to appeal on behalf of the State of California since they had no “direct stake” in the outcome of the appeal.
“Their only interest in having the District Court order reversed was to vindicate the constitutional validity of a generally applicable California law,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts.
“We have repeatedly held that such a ‘generalized grievance,’ no matter how sincere, is insufficient to confer standing. A litigant ‘raising only a generally available grievance about government—claiming only harm to his and every citizen’s interest in proper application of the Constitution and laws, and seeking relief that no more directly and tangibly benefits him than it does the public at large—does not state an Article III case or controversy,’” Roberts continued.
Furthermore, standing in a federal case is a question of federal law, not state. “No matter its reasons, the fact that a State thinks a private party should have standing to seek relief for a generalized grievance cannot override our settled law to the contrary,” said Roberts.
“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,” he concluded.
Writing for the minority, Justice Kennedy argued that it was for the State of California to decide who could assert the state’s interests in court. Kennedy pointed out that proponents of Proposition 8 had invested a great deal of time, money, and energy into getting it onto the ballot. “Having gone to great lengths to convince voters to enact an initiative, they have a stake in the outcome and the necessary commitment to provide zealous advocacy,” he wrote.
Image credit: Rene Rivers via Flickr