The California Supreme Court decided on Thursday that the anti-gay marriage group defending California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage does have legal standing to defend the ban in appeals courts when the state refuses to do so.
The decision is a setback for gay rights groups and a pivotal moment in the case, which could end up in the Supreme Court and set a national precedent on gay marriage that would affect bans in states beyond California.
The decision is an advisory opinion that clarifies a legal question posed to the California Supreme Court by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the ban sometime next year.
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The question of the Proposition 8 proponents standing came into play because California's governor and attorney general refused to defend Proposition 8 after a federal judge ruled the ballot initiative unconstitutional in 2010. The high court's decision affirms under California law that ballot initiative proponents have the right to defend initiatives they supported when state officials refuse to do so.
California voters approved the ban by a slim margin in 2008.
The Ninth Circuit has indicated it would accept the high court's ruling on the issue of standing, and the pro-gay rights plaintiffs said they expect the appeals court to quickly address the case and rule on the constitutionality of the ban.
Star attorney Theodore Olson, who joined David Boies in representing two gay couples who originally sued to challenge the ban, said the issue of standing could be revived in the Supreme Court if the case ends up there.
The question on standing diverted the case for about six months, and pro-gay rights attorneys said today that they are glad to return to the Ninth Circuit and continue making progress.
"The long period of suffering that individuals have experienced being denied their individual rights under the constitution will soon be over," Olson said.