Once or twice a term, occasionally more often, the justices do dismiss cases after they have been argued, without rendering opinions and establishing a rule for the whole nation. The language they use is the wonderfully vague "dismissed as improvidently granted." Roughly translated, it means "sorry for wasting everyone's time."
That is one potential outcome, discussed publicly by Kennedy and Sotomayor.
Another possibility would be a decision limited to the technical legal question of whether the Proposition 8 supporters have the right to defend the measure in court. If they don't, the court can't reach the broader issues in the case.
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.
Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shermancourt
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.