Proposition 8, California’s marriage protection (no, you can’t marry that person) act takes two steps forward and three steps sideways into legal Byzantium. Attorney K.O. Myers decodes the play-by-play:
The legal battle over California’s Proposition 8 took an important turn on Tuesday. The Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals made a move that has legal procedure nerds gazing in rapt attention, while everyone else is left wondering what the heck happened. The court has asked California’s Supreme Court to clarify the issue of “standing,” or whether the backers of the gay marriage-banning proposition have the legal right to actually defend it in court.
Standing is a concept that’s broadly common sensical, but a little harder to grasp at the level of particulars. It’s designed to prevent parties from getting involved in litigation unless they have a real interest in the outcome.
As a hypothetical (and possibly autobiographical) example of why this is useful, let’s say that you and your bratty younger sister are fighting over who gets to pick what you’re going to watch on TV. (Imagine for the purposes of this exercise that your family is living in the Stone Age, and only has one television in the house.) She kicks you in the shins, you pull her hair, and you both go clambering upstairs, yelling for Mom to resolve the conflict.
After much yelling of conflicting viewpoints, your mother determines that you got to pick the last show, and it’s your sister’s turn to choose, even though Smurfs is stupid and you hate it. You storm off to your room in a huff, flop down on the bed and proceed to send text messages to your best friend on the entirely too fancy smartphone that one assumes all pre-adolescents have these days.
Your friend sympathizes; he exhorts you in the most urgent LOLspeak to go find your father, and ask him to override your mother’s decision. You know that’s a bad idea, however, since your parents actually talk to each other; not only will Mom be furious that you tried to circumvent her, but Dad will be just as mad when he finds out what kind of game you’re trying to pull, mister.
Now here’s the crucial part. Once you’ve made up your mind to live with your mother’s (totally unfair) decision, your BFF wouldn’t take it into his head to march over to your house and try to convince your father to reverse your mother’s judgment. Why? Because he doesn’t have any real interest in the case. He sympathizes with you, sure. But he isn’t injured if you have to sit through the stupid Smurfs, and he doesn’t really gain anything if Dad sees the light of reason and lets you watch Thundercats.
Back in the (only slightly) more mature world of the federal and state courts, we have rules about standing, designed to ensure that only somebody who will actually be affected by the court’s decision is allowed to participate in a proceeding. So if your neighbor that you kind of say hi to once in awhile but whose last name you don’t know gets hit by a car, he can sue the driver for his injuries, but you can’t waste the court’s limited time and money trying to sue as well.
Which brings us back to the Ninth Circuit, which was hearing an appeal of a ruling by District Court Judge Vaughan Walker, which invalidated Prop 8 for violating the U.S. Constitution. The appeal was brought by supporters of the Proposition, because officials from the State of California have refused to defend the Proposition in court. The hitch is this; for various reasons, when a federal court is hearing a dispute over a state law, it’s supposed to follow the state’s rules about standing. But the California courts have never made it clear whether simply being in favor of a challenged Proposition creates a sufficient interest to allow the supporters standing to defend its validity. So the Ninth Circuit is stepping back and asking the California Supreme Court to answer that question before it can address the actual arguments.