High court to hear same-sex marriage cases in March

The California Supreme Court announced today it will hear arguments in San Francisco on March 4 on whether there is a state constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

The court's seven justices will hold an unusual three-hour long hearing in their State Building courtroom on six consolidated cases filed by groups opposing and supporting same-sex marriage.

The announcement means that a final decision on whether gay and lesbian couples can marry in California is due by early June.

Under normal procedures, California courts must issue a written ruling 90 days after hearing arguments in a case.

The state high court is the last stop on a legal journey that began in San Francisco Superior Court after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom four years ago unsuccessfully sought to allow city officials to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

After San Francisco officials had issued about 4,000 licenses in four weeks in 2004, the state Supreme Court halted the practice and later ruled the city had no authority to issue the licenses and that they were invalid.

But the high court said it was willing to allow separate proceedings to test the constitutionality of state laws requiring marriage to be between a man and a woman.

Eventually, six lawsuits were filed – four by the city of San Francisco and 19 gay and lesbian couples seeking a right to marry and two by traditional-values groups opposed to same-sex marriage.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge struck down the state laws in 2005. But in 2006, a state appeals court overturned that decision.

The appeals court said the Legislature and voters had a rational basis for restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples while at the same time giving same-sex couples equal benefits through the state's domestic partnership system.

The case then went to the state Supreme Court, which will have the final word on interpreting the rights provided by the California constitution.

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