What the Prop 8 ruling says
In order to understand what the Prop 8 ruling says, we have to understand the history of the case. Here’s the (simplified) history of Hollingsworth v. Perry, with plain-English analysis afterwards:
0. Voters in California approved Proposition 8, which added the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman to the California State Constitution.
1. Perry (et. al.) brought a challenge to Prop 8. When you bring a challenge against the constitutionality of a law, you bring it against the governor of the state (in their official capacity), which is why the case was originally known as Perry v. Schwarzenegger. The governor refused to defend the case, and the proponents of Prop 8 (Holingsworth, et. al.) petitioned to be able to defend it instead. They were granted that ability.
2. Judge Vaughn Walker of the District Court issued a ruling that stuck down Prop 8 in an opinion that, for legal opinions, almost passes for snarky. (Seriously, go read it.) The short version of the opinion is that Prop 8 violates the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the US Constitution. (This will be important in my analysis below.)
3. Hollingsworth appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court, which is the federal-level court of appeals for California. The circuit court was not sure whether Hollingsworth, not being the actual target of the challenge, had the standing (that is, the right) to appeal the decision, since you are not allowed to appeal a decision that does not actually affect you adversely. They asked the California Supreme Court to answer this question.
4. The California Supreme Court decided that Hollingsworth, as the proponents of the measure, had enough standing to appeal the decision. The appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court continued and Perry won again, though on less far-reaching grounds.
5. Hollingsworth appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Today, SCOTUS issued an opinion on the case that Hollingsworth did not have standing to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court in the first place, and that the ruling from the District Court stands. In ruling this way, SCOTUS did not rule on the actual issue of whether barring same-sex marriage is constitutional.
So, what does this mean?
It means that, barring other legal challenges to the District Court’s ruling, Prop 8 is unconstitutional under the federal constitution, and the same-sex marriage is legal in California. It will probably be a little bit before California starts issuing same-sex marriage licenses again, because there is some legal paperwork that has to be done first.
Why did SCOTUS rule this way?
Generally speaking, the Supreme Court likes to rule as narrowly as it thinks it can get away with. A Supreme Court ruling is a powerful precedent, and they want to wield that power as wisely and judiciously as they can. By sending this case back based on a standing issue and not the merits, they can avoid having to figure out what public opinion on this issue across the country is and thus avoid issuing a broad federal opinion. They can also put the power to decide issues in the states in the hands of the judges at the state level.
Isn’t that just a cop-out, though? The Supreme Court ought to actually decide this issue!
It looks like a cop-out, but there are two things that prevent it from actually being a cop-out.
The first is that this order holds that only the governor of a state can defend a challenge to a state law in federal court. This is pretty big, because it means that something like Hollingsworth’s appeal will never happen again. If your state has a law banning same-sex marriage, and the governor refuses to defend, that may be enough to strike down the law. It makes those fights much easier.
The second, which the justices are not blind to, is that Walker’s opinion stands. That opinion, which is based on the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, is a powerful and broad opinion that does not depend on any California laws or cases. Every case in every state with laws banning same-sex marriage is going to be able to use Walker’s opinion to get those laws declared unconstitutional. This ties into putting the power to decide these things at the state level as mentioned above.
All in all, this is a really good outcome. It’s not a striking-down of the law from on high and a declaration that all state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, but it is essentially a slower version of that. On top of that, there are a number of rulings the Supreme Court could have made that would have made it extremely hard to get laws in other states struck down, and none of those rulings happened. It seems that SCOTUS is giving public opinion time to advance, and that perhaps the next time a case like this gets to the Supreme Court, public opinion will have advanced enough that making a ruling on the merits won’t be as unconstitutional.