Last week, federal district judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled that California's ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitutional rights of gay couples. Immediately afterward, he issued a temporary stay of that ruling, keeping it from taking effect pending appeal. Now, Judge Walker has ruled on that stay—to the confusion of many. Will gay marriages become legal in California, or not?
After Judge Walker's intensely worded decision last week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and State Attorney General Jerry Brown filed legal motions asking the judge to lift the stay on his ruling. Many gay couples hoped that he might do so, offering a small window in which same-sex weddings might take place, before an appeals court could step in to reintroduce the stay. But Judge Walker's ruling on Thursday left many confused about what to expect. On the one hand, he ruled against staying his earlier judgment overturning Prop. 8. On the other hand, he delayed implementation of that ruling, deciding that gay marriage will be prevented only until next Wednesday, August 18th. This leaves the gay marriage issue in the hands of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which can step in to maintain the status quo by accepting the case and prolonging the stay. On the other hand, if they decline to hear the case, or even delay deciding whether to hear it, they will open the door to a new wave of gay marriages in California.
Judge Walker was asked to rule on his stay by considering: the likelihood that an appeal would be successful; the harm that might come to the petitioning parties from denying a stay; and any potential harm to the public interest in denying a stay. In his ruling, Judge Vaughn evaluated these concerns, writing, for example, that "the trial record left no doubt that Proposition 8 inflicts harm on plaintiffs and other gays and lesbians in California." Finally, Judge Walker wrote, "None of the factors the court weighs in considering a motion to stay favors granting a stay. Accordingly, proponents’ motion for a stay is denied. The clerk is directed to enter judgment forthwith. That judgment shall be stayed until August 18, 2010 at 5 PM (PDT) at which time defendants and all persons under their control or supervision shall cease to apply or enforce Proposition 8." In short: Prop. 8 holds for another week, and unless a higher court intervenes, not a moment longer.
Should that higher court—the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—decline to intervene, California government agencies are prepared. Across California, agencies granting marriage licenses have scrambled to prepare for the possibility of a brief window in which same-sex couples might marry, and they will continue to wait should an opening come late next week. San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting said, "Although there has been a temporary stay on the current ban on same-sex marriages issued, we are ready and willing to implement the Judge’s ruling and fully prepared to serve all the loving couples who have been waiting for the opportunity to marry." Many such couples gathered Thursday at San Francisco City Hall, ready and waiting to leap at the opportunity to marry. Now their wait has been extended for at least another week.
It is quite likely the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will step in to stop any marriages from happening. But what if they don't? Are you ready to tie the knot? Marriage licenses can often be issued same day, but it's good to be prepared. Here are places where you can find info online. For San Francisco, click here; for Los Angeles County, click here; for elsewhere in California, look here. And if gay weddings do start up again next week, be prepared to be patient. It may be a pretty crazy time at City Hall.