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Supreme Court seems to look to sidestep decision on gay marriage

Updated: March 26, 2013 9:49PM



WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court suggested Tuesday it could find a way out of the case over California’s ban on same-sex marriage without issuing a major national ruling on whether gays have a right to marry, an issue one justice described as newer than cellphones and the Internet.

Several justices, including some liberals who seemed open to gay marriage, raised doubts during a riveting 80-minute argument that the case was properly before them. And Justice Anthony Kennedy, the potentially decisive vote on a closely divided court, suggested that the court could dismiss the case with no ruling at all.

Such an outcome would almost certainly allow gay marriages to resume in California but would have no impact elsewhere.

Kennedy said he feared the court would go into “uncharted waters” if it embraced arguments advanced by gay marriage supporters. But lawyer Theodore Olson, representing two same-sex couples, said that the court similarly ventured into the unknown in 1967 when it struck down bans on interracial marriage in 16 states.

Kennedy challenged the accuracy of that comment by noting that other countries had had interracial marriages for hundreds of years.

There was no majority apparent for any particular outcome and many doubts expressed about the arguments advanced by lawyers for the opponents of gay marriage in California, by the supporters and by the Obama administration, which is in favor of same-sex marriage rights.

Kennedy made clear he did not like the rationale of the federal appeals court that struck down Proposition 8, the California ban, even though it cited earlier opinions in favor of gay rights that Kennedy wrote.

That appeals court ruling applied only to California, where same-sex couples briefly had the right to marry before voters adopted a constitutional amendment in November 2008 that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Several members of the court also were troubled by the Obama administration’s main point that when states offer same-sex couples all the rights of marriage, as California and eight other states do, they also must allow marriage.

Justice Samuel Alito described gay marriage as newer than such rapidly changing technological advances as cellphones and the Internet, and appeared to advocate a more cautious approach to the issue.

“You want us to assess the effect of same-sex marriage,” Alito said to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. “It may turn out to be a good thing. It may turn out to be not a good thing.”

Charles Cooper, representing the people who helped get Proposition 8 on the ballot, ran into similar resistance over his argument that the court should uphold the ban as a valid expression of the people’s will and let the vigorous political debate over gay marriage continue.

Here, Kennedy suggested that Cooper’s argument did not take account of the estimated 40,000 children who have same-sex parents. “The voices of these children are important, don’t you think?” Kennedy said.

Same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. The states are Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington.

Thirty states ban same-sex marriage in their state constitutions, while ten states bar them under state laws. New Mexico law is silent on the issue.

Polls have shown increasing support in the country for gay marriage. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in mid-March, 49 percent of Americans now favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, with 44 percent opposed.

The California case is being argued 10 years to the day after the court took up a challenge to Texas’ anti-sodomy statute. That case ended with a forceful ruling prohibiting states from criminalizing sexual relations between consenting adults.

The court has several options for its eventual ruling, which is not expected before late June. In addition to upholding the ban and invalidating prohibitions everywhere, the justices could endorse an appeals court ruling that would make same-sex marriage legal in California but apply only to that state. They also could issue a broader ruling that would apply to California and eight other states: Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island. In those states, gay couples may join in civil unions or become domestic partners and have all the benefits of marriage but cannot be married.



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