The Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal over same-sex marriage on jurisdictional grounds, ruling Wednesday private parties do not have "standing" to defend California's voter-approved ballot measure barring gay and lesbian couples from state-sanctioned wedlock.
The ruling clears the way for same-sex marriages in California to resume.
The 5-4 decision avoids, for now, a sweeping conclusion on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional "equal protection" right that would apply to all states.
At issue was whether the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law prevents states from defining marriage to exclude same-sex couples, and whether a state can revoke same-sex marriage through referendum, as California did, once it already has been recognized.
But a majority of the Supreme Court opted not to rule on those issues. Instead, it ruled on "standing" -- whether those who brought the suit to the court were entitled to do so.
"We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend a state statute when state officials have chosen not to," said Chief Justice John Roberts. He was supported by an unusual coalition: fellow conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and more liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
By dismissing the case, the court leaves in place the lower court decision in California that allows same-sex marriage to be reinstated. The federal appeals court stay on the decision will be lifted.
Within hours of the ruling, California's Gov. Jerry Brown said, "I have directed the California Department of Public Health to advise the state's counties that they must begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in California as soon as the Ninth Circuit confirms the stay is lifted."
Brown, a Democrat, said he interpreted the high court opinion as making Prop 8 unconstitutional and unenforceable. The state's Attorney General Kamala Harris agreed and urged the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco to issue its mandate "immediately." But by law, that cannot normally be done so for at least 25 days, to allow for possible new legal challenges.