But whatever the decision, the court of public opinion soon will render it moot. The trajectory of changing attitudes on same sex marriage is inexorably headed toward full acceptance and legal status - something this newspaper has advocated for 20 years.
The trend is clear in California, where 52 percent of voters supported Proposition 8 just four years ago. In a May survey, 54 percent said they now support legal same-sex marriage, while just 40 percent were opposed. Even if the Supreme Court upholds the ban, voters here will overturn it themselves before long and join the nine states that now allow gays and lesbians to marry.
Nationally, 49 percent of respondents to an October Pew poll said they supported legalizing gay marriage, while 40 percent said they were opposed. That is essentially the reverse of poll numbers four years earlier. And the reason is obvious. Young people overwhelmingly support equality: An October Gallup poll found three-quarters of 18- to 29-year-olds in favor. Even in the conservative South, a more accepting younger generation eventually will overtake the old guard, even if it takes a bit longer.
Testimony in the Proposition 8 trial two years ago exposed the emptiness of the arguments against same-sex marriage. Supporters of the proposition presented just two witnesses, neither of whom could offer a shred of credible evidence that preventing gays from marrying promotes any legitimate state interest.
David Boies, the lead lawyer on the team seeking to strike down the gay marriage ban, explained the predicament faced by his opponents: "They didn't fail because they're bad lawyers; they failed because there isn't any evidence to support the argument they're advocating."
That's the reality in both cases the Supreme Court will hear in the coming months.
It will be far better for the country if the high court comes down on the side of equal rights in a way that settles the matter quickly and cleanly and allows divisions on social issues to begin to heal. But the battle for marriage equality has been won. Now it's just a matter of how the war will end.
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Michael Klarman, Harvard Law professor, writing for the Los Angeles Times:
On Nov. 6, for the first time in American history, a majority of voters in a state - indeed, in three states - approved same-sex marriage. On Friday, the Supreme Court decided to weigh in on the issue, granting review in cases challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and in a case contesting the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, which barred same-sex marriage.
DOMA is likely to prove the easier issue for the court, assuming the justices rule on the merits of either or both cases (there are procedural issues that, depending on how the justices are inclined, could block them from considering the merits). The relevant statutory provision bars congressional recognition of same-sex marriages lawfully performed in the states. This means, for example, that a same-sex couple lawfully married in Massachusetts is disqualified from receiving Social Security survivors' benefits that are available to married opposite-sex couples.
Several lower courts have invalidated DOMA on federalism grounds. Historically, Congress has usually deferred to state definitions of marriage. Supreme Court justices who care deeply about preserving traditional spheres of state autonomy ought to be troubled by DOMA, regardless of what they think of marriage equality. Conservative justices who prize federalism and liberal justices who endorse marriage equality may combine to invalidate DOMA by a sizable margin.
Indeed, for the court to uphold DOMA in 2013 would be surprising. Some sponsors of that law, enacted in 1996, defended it in blatantly homophobic terms, denouncing homosexuality as morally wrong and comparing it to polygamy and pedophilia. Supreme Court precedent forbids statutes to be rooted in animus or prejudice, and to a considerable degree DOMA was.
In addition, justices are not indifferent to public sentiment, and recent opinion polls show that Americans no longer support DOMA. One 2011 poll revealed that Americans favored its repeal by 51 percent to 34 percent. Even lower-court judges appointed by Republican presidents have been voting to strike down DOMA.
Predicting how the court will rule on the Proposition 8 case, which could clearly establish or deny a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, is harder. For starters, the justices are likely to divide 5 to 4, as they do on almost every important constitutional issue - including abortion, affirmative action, campaign finance reform, capital punishment, gun control and federal health-care reform.
As on most other issues, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, probably the most powerful justice in the court's history, is likely to determine the outcome. His vote may turn on how he balances two seemingly opposing proclivities. On the one hand, Kennedy's rulings often turn dominant national norms into constitutional mandates to suppress outlier state practices. His decisions barring the death penalty for minors and the mentally disabled and invalidating state laws criminalizing same-sex sodomy fit this description.
On gay marriage, this propensity to use the Constitution only to suppress dissident practices would counsel restraint on the part of the court. Just nine states and the District of Columbia currently permit same-sex marriage. Intervening at this stage of a social reform movement would be somewhat analogous to Roe v. Wade, in which the court identified an abortion right that invalidated the laws of 46 states. Kennedy has rarely if ever used the Constitution so aggressively.
On the other hand, Kennedy authored the court's only two decisions supporting gay rights, explicitly embracing the notion of a living Constitution whose meaning evolves to reflect changing social mores. Moreover, Kennedy's opinions frequently treat international norms as relevant to American constitutional interpretation, and marriage equality is rapidly gaining momentum around the world.