In the culmination of a long civil rights fight, Gibson Dunn won a historic marriage equality victory when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a district court ruling striking down California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the California Constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage. Gibson Dunn began the constitutional challenge to Prop 8 in 2009, won a historic trial in 2010, successfully defended that trial win in the Ninth Circuit, and achieved the final victory in 2013, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, after Prop 8 proponents appealed to the Supreme Court. In 2009 just three U.S. states permitted gays and lesbians to marry. By the time our clients were married in California in June 2013, that total had increased to 14 states and the District of Columbia. It continued to climb, with federal courts striking down marriage bans in a number of other states, including, at Gibson Dunn’s urging, in Virginia, a ruling later affirmed by the Fourth Circuit in Bostic v. Schaefer.
When we first brought the case it was extremely controversial. Skeptics feared it was too soon, too risky and too likely to fail. If a federal case went all the way to the Supreme Court and the result was negative, marriage equality across the United States could be stopped cold. We analyzed the issues, the Supreme Court’s decisions, and the probabilities of winning or losing. Believing that we and the cause could prevail, we pressed the constitutional challenge with co-counsel Boies Schiller & Flexner, arguing that Prop 8 violated the dignity and equality of same-sex couples and harmed their families. The groundbreaking lawsuit was the first federal challenge to a same-sex marriage ban. We developed and began to tirelessly implement a public relations and awareness campaign.
We prevailed after a three-week trial in the district court, which declared Prop 8 unconstitutional, explaining that it did “nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.” The court enjoined enforcement of Prop 8. Our defense of that result on appeal in the Ninth Circuit culminated in the holding that “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for laws of this sort.” In the final step, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Prop 8 proponents had suffered no harm and lacked standing to appeal, a ruling that allowed the original district court injunction to take effect. While the Supreme Court’s decision on standing grounds did not reach the merits of our clients’ constitutional challenge to Prop 8, the Court adopted their arguments in another case. On the same day as the Hollingsworth ruling, the Supreme Court released its opinion striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in Windsor v. United States, holding that DOMA robs gays and lesbians of their dignity and “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by [same-sex couples].”