Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage both cheered the Supreme Court decision announced on Friday to hear a pair of cases that could determine the fate of millions of gay Americans as soon as next summer.
The court agreed to hear both the California case that challenges the constitutionality of Proposition 8, a referendum passed that stripped gay couples the right to marry after the state Supreme Court had declared doing so constitutional, and a challenge to a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
By taking up both cases, the court is poised to make sweeping changes to both state and federal marriage laws – or not. It also allows itself the right to decide on the "standing" of the cases, that is to say whether or not they are justified.
"The court included, with respect to both of the cases, issues of standing," said Ted Olson, the lead counsel for gay marriage supporters in the California case. Olson said his side is "challenging the proponents of [Proposition] 8's right to participate in this case once the state of California had agreed that Prop 8 was unconstitutional."
But Olson predicted the court would move ahead and decide both cases on their merits, rather than issues of standing.
"It is going to be so important for the United States Supreme Court to address the merits here," he said during a conference call with reporters. "We have an exhaustive record on which to build this case and it will be an education for the American people. We are very confident the outcome of this case will be to support the rights of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters."
Opponents of gay marriage also welcomed the court's announcement, feeling confident in the court's conservative make-up.
"We believe it is a strong signal that the court will reverse the lower courts and uphold Proposition 8," said John Eastman, chairman for the National Organization for Marriage. "That is the right outcome based on the law and based on the principle that voters hold the ultimate power over basic policy judgments and their decisions are entitled to respect."
NOM has financed anti-gay marriage efforts in referendums across the country, including the successful passage of Prop 8 in California.
Eastman said the court's decision to revisit the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which says the federal government will not recognize same-sex marriage and allows states to ignore same-sex marriage licenses issued legally in other states, was also welcome.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court will review lower-court decisions that invalidate the judgment of the U.S. Congress to define marriage as one man and one woman," he said. "It's not the job of federal judges to substitute their views for the policy judgments of the people's duly elected representatives."
Court experts say the oral arguments for both cases will likely be made in late March, with a decision coming around the end of June. Similar to the recent health care case, all eyes will be on Justice Anthony Kennedy, thought to be the swing vote between the four-member blocs of liberal and conservative justices. But one of the wild cards may be how rapidly public opinion has evolved on the issue, an often unspoken but relevant factor in court decisions.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, made note of the changing landscape in remarks to reporters.
"Think back four years ago … when we filed this case we were only looking at three states in this country that had marriage equality," he said. "After this past election, we have now nine states, we have the District of Columbia, we have the president of the United States supporting marriage equality, we have the first victories at the ballot box and now in poll after poll a majority of Americans now say that they support the fundamental right to marry. It is no question where this country is headed."