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Lambda Legal Advisory: What the California Supreme Court Ruling Tomorrow on Marriages in San Francisco Will, and Won't, Cover

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We have 58 counties and 478 cities in California — couples in all of them need the protections marriage provides, and that's where we're focused now.'
August 11, 2004

(San Francisco – August 11, 2004) With the California Supreme Court set to issue its decision tomorrow on whether San Francisco officials had the authority to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Lambda Legal said today that a separate case is moving forward to secure marriage for lesbian and gay couples statewide – and that case will be unaffected by the ruling.


“Tomorrow's ruling is important, but it will not resolve whether same-sex couples have the right to marry and be treated equally under our state Constitution. We've fought hard for couples who married or wanted to marry in San Francisco, and now we're moving forward with our lawsuit in state court that directly seeks a ruling that will allow couples to marry statewide,” said Jennifer Pizer, Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal's Los Angeles-based Western Regional Office. “We have 58 counties and 478 cities in California – couples in all of them need the protections marriage provides, and that's where we're focused now.”

Several lawsuits involving same-sex relationships are pending throughout the state, and Lambda Legal issued the following advisory to clarify some of the cases and the issues that may be decided tomorrow.

1. What will the state Supreme Court rule on tomorrow? The California Supreme Court is currently considering two issues, which were raised in separate lawsuits. The first issue is whether San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and other San Francisco officials exceeded their authority when they changed the marriage license application form to make it gender neutral, issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples and performed marriages for those couples. The second issue is whether the court should invalidate more than 4,000 same-sex couples' marriages that were performed in San Francisco earlier this year. The lawsuits were filed by the state Attorney General and a right-wing antigay group from Arizona. Tomorrow's decision could answer both questions. It also might answer the first question, but leave the second unanswered, which Lambda Legal, along with NCLR, the ACLU and Equality California, have requested (particularly in light of the fact that the state Supreme Court refused to hear from any of the married couples when the cases were argued in May). All of the legal papers filed on these two proceedings, along with an audiocast of oral arguments, is at: http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/courts/supreme/sfmarriages/.

2. What is not in front of the state Supreme Court for tomorrow's ruling? The court is not likely to rule on whether same-sex couples must be allowed to marry under the California Constitution. That is being addressed by a separate lawsuit, explained below, which is in San Francisco Superior Court and not yet before the state Supreme Court. Tomorrow's ruling will impact local officials in the state until the more fundamental question on marriage is answered in the courts by lawsuits that are already moving forward. San Francisco's mayor and city officials contend that they were upholding the state's Constitution by allowing same-sex couples to marry, since the state's Constitution guarantees that everyone will be treated equally. The separate lawsuit that's moving forward will answer once and for all whether the state Constitution requires officials to treat gay couples equally and allow them to marry statewide.

3. What will happen if the state Supreme Court does not address the validity of the existing marriages? Under California law, marriages are presumed to be valid unless ruled otherwise. If the court rules that local officials exceeded their authority in allowing same-sex couples to marry but does not rule to invalidate the marriages, the couples should be presumed to be legally married. Technical deficiencies in the application or processing of marriage licenses don't usually invalidate a marriage under state law. The more than 4,000 same-sex couples who were married in San Francisco will continue to consider themselves married, and they should be treated as such.

4. What is the status of separate lawsuits seeking the right to marry for same-sex couples in California? Lambda Legal, NCLR and the ACLU filed a lawsuit in state court in March on behalf of several same-sex couples and two organizations, Equality California and Our Families Coalition. Last week, the groups filed an amended complaint in San Francisco Superior Court. That complaint is online at: /sites/default/files/pdf/309.pdf. The lawsuit has been coordinated with similar lawsuits that were proceeding in state court. Lambda Legal and its co-counsel for the couples will be filing legal briefs in the next few weeks, and the case is expected to move quickly.

5. What other lawsuits involving same-sex relationships are pending in California courts? Earlier this summer, the state Supreme Court announced that it will hear Lambda Legal's case against a Southern California country club that treats a member's lesbian partner as a “guest,” limiting the amount of time she can golf with her life partner and costing the women a substantial amount of money in extra fees. That case, which is awaiting argument before the Supreme Court, contends that the country club is discriminating based on marital status, sex and sexual orientation in violation of California law. Meanwhile, right-wing antigay groups from Florida and Arizona filed lawsuits challenging the state's comprehensive domestic partnership law, which is set to go into effect in January 2005. Lambda Legal, NCLR and the ACLU intervened in court on behalf of Equality California and same-sex couples who need the protections the law provides – even though it falls short of the critical security and respect marriage provides – and the cases were consolidated in state court in Sacramento. The case is awaiting a court hearing on motions filed by all the parties asking for a decision without a trial.

Last week, Lambda Legal and the Northwest Women's Law Center won a trial court victory in their lawsuit seeking marriage for same-sex couples in Washington State. Lambda Legal is also representing same-sex couples seeking marriage in New Jersey and New York.

In addition to Pizer, Jon Davidson in Lambda Legal's Western Regional Office is handling Woo, et al. v. Lockyer, et al, the case currently in trial court seeking marriage for same-sex couples in California. Other attorneys on the case include: Courtney Joslin and Shannon Minter at lead counsel the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Tamara Lange and Alan Schlosser at the ACLU of Northern California; Martha Matthews at the ACLU of Southern California; Stephen Bomse, Richard Denatale amd Hillary Ware at Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe; Dena Narbaitz and Clyde Wadsworth at Steefel Levitt and Weiss; and David Codell and Aimee Dudovitz at the Law Office of David Codell.

Please contact Fred Shank at 212-809-8585 x267.

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