California judge on verge of legalizing gay marriage

Sometime in the next few weeks, California may legalize same-sex marriage. Again.

Judge Vaughn Walker, chief justice of the United States District Court of Northern California, is expected to issue a ruling on Perry v. Schwarzenegger — better known as “the Prop. 8 trial” — in the coming days. The decision will follow a series of complicated political twists and turns that have shaped the gay marriage debate in California over the past several years.

In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 22, the California Defense of Marriage Act. The act states that only “marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

On February 12, 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco ordered the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Approximately 4,000 same-sex couples obtained marriage licenses from that time up until March 11 of that year, when the California Supreme Court halted same-sex marriages. In August, the court nullified all of the same-sex marriages that had occurred since February. But on May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court reversed course and struck down Proposition 22, ruling that sexual orientation is not “a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.”

Then, six months later, California voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to restrict the scope of marriage to exclusively between a man and a woman. The California Supreme Court upheld the amendment but this time did not nullify the same-sex marriages that had taken place before Prop. 8 had passed.

The plaintiffs in Perry are Kristin Perry and Sandra Steir; and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, a lesbian and gay couple, respectively, who were denied marriage licenses. They have filed a federal legal challenge against California in the hopes of overturning Prop 8. Closing arguments in the case were held last Tuesday. Walker submitted an extensive list of questions to the lawyers for both sides to discuss during the closing arguments.

The questions asked lawyers to address, among other things, whether there was ‘rational basis’ for the passage of Proposition 8, the role of voter intent in passing the legislation, and the history of marriage. Walker repeatedly interrupted lawyers for both sides to question them on these and other issues, but he wasn’t the only contentious presence in the courtroom.