Gay Marriage at High Court: How a Case Can Fizzle

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A majority of those polled believe same-sex marriage should be legal or illegal based on the U.S. Constitution, not the states.

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On this point, Roberts' view seemed more in line with questions from some of the liberal justices.

So why would a justice who appeared favorably inclined to California's ban on gay marriage want to rule that the case should not even be in front of the court?

The answer is that Roberts might want to dispose of the case in this narrow way if he saw a decision in support of gay marriage emerging and wanted to block it. Or, he might choose this route if the justices appeared unable to reach a decisive ruling of any kind.

Narrowly based decisions sometimes seem more attractive to the justices than fractured rulings.

One example is the court's 2009 decision in a voting rights case in which eight of the justices agreed to sidestep the looming and major constitutional issue in the case after an argument in which the court appeared sharply split along ideological lines.

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