U.S. Supreme Court inaction could return gay marriage to California

  • Kevin Coyne of Washington holds flags in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the second day of gay marriage cases, turned Wednesday to a constitutional challenge to the federal law that prevents legally married gay Americans from collecting federal benefits generally available to straight married couples. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Supreme Court seems reluctant to use the legal battle over California's same-sex marriage ban to rule that all gay Americans have a constitutional right to wed, but that doesn't mean gay marriage will not be returning to the state.

The high court's forthcoming ruling is likely to allow same-sex marriages to resume in California more than four years after gays and lesbians first won the right to wed in the state courts and lost it a few months later at the ballot box, legal experts and lawyers involved in the case said.

How that happens and how long it would take remain open to interpretation. There are a range of possibilities. Some experts say a court decision, expected in June, could mean that marriages resume statewide soon after, while others argue a ruling could be limited, and only affect the original two plaintiffs and residents of counties where they live.

"I don't think it's at all a foregone conclusion that everyone gets to benefit," said Tobias Wolff, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who has spent months puzzling over the various scenarios, adding that it's going to take a lot more work before there is a final answer.

Each scenario is likely to produce more legal and political wrangling while same-sex marriage backers organize to repeal the voter-enacted ban, known as Proposition 8, with the expectation that public opinion has shifted in their favor since it passed with 52 percent of the vote in November 2008.

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