Updated Friday, December 7, 2012 at 10:45 PM
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Friday it will take up a pair of high-profile same-sex marriage cases. Decisions in those cases will not directly affect Washington state's new gay marriage law but could put the court on a path to deciding whether gay marriage should be legal in all states.
The justices will review a federal appeals-court ruling that struck down California's gay-marriage ban, which voters approved after the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Also, they will weigh whether Congress can deprive legally married gay couples of federal benefits otherwise available to married people.
The second case deals with a provision in the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, limiting to heterosexual couples a range of health and pension benefits, as well as favorable tax treatment.
The cases probably will be argued in March, with decisions expected by late June.
They are unlikely to affect the law in Washington state, where same-sex couples will begin marrying Sunday after voters approved Referendum 74 last month, legal experts said.
But a ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act — DOMA — could give same-sex couples in Washington and across the country access to critical federal benefits, said University of Washington law professor Peter Nicolas.
"State law only provides a handful of the really critical rights that I think are important to same-sex couples, so this is an enormous deal," Nicolas said.
"If the Supreme Court agrees with the lower court that DOMA is unconstitutional, the immediate effect is that same-sex couples would be able to take advantage of all of the federal benefits of marriage, like joint filing of federal income taxes and the transferring of Social Security benefits," he said.
But a ruling upholding that portion of DOMA could imperil the ability of same-sex couples to get those benefits in the future.
The California case, on the other hand, would have a more limited direct impact in Washington state because the case is narrow in scope, dealing only with states that have banned same-sex marriage, Nicolas said.
Narrow, or broad?
The language the justices use in deciding the two cases could set the court on a path to deciding the large and controversial issue of same-sex marriage, Nicolas and other experts said.
"I don't think the Supreme Court is ready to reach the ultimate issue of saying whether the Constitution guarantees the right to marry to same-sex couples," said Julie Shapiro, a law professor at Seattle University. "And they don't have to do that, but I do think they have to tell us whether they're heading there."
But Shapiro said it's just as likely that the justices will find a way to decide the cases on narrow enough ground that their ruling would not set any sort of precedent.
In Washington state, same-sex marriage supporters and opponents alike said the court's decisions will have large implications.
"This is a very significant step in what has been a transformational year," said Anne Levinson, a former deputy mayor of Seattle and strategic adviser to the Referendum 74 campaign. "This decision by the Supreme Court will have national implications for so many Americans, and there will be thousands of people whose lives will be changed as a result."
Local conservative Pastor Joe Fuiten predicted the court will uphold the California law and DOMA.
"We've been waiting for the court to weigh in," said Fuiten, of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell. "This is the next big thing that is going to change this debate."
Washington is now one of nine states — with Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, plus the District of Columbia — that recognize same-sex marriages or soon will.
Federal courts in California have struck down the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but that ruling has not taken effect while the issue is being appealed.
Thirty-one states have amended their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. North Carolina was the most recent example in May.
In Minnesota earlier this month, voters defeated a proposal to enshrine a ban on gay marriage in that state's constitution.
The Prop 8 case
The California case deals with Proposition 8, the state constitutional ban on gay marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians could marry. The case could allow the justices to decide whether the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection means that the right to marriage cannot be limited to heterosexuals.
A decision in favor of gay marriage could set a national rule and overturn every state constitutional provision and law banning same-sex marriages.
A ruling that upheld California's ban would be a setback for gay marriage proponents in the nation's largest state, although it would leave open the state-by-state effort to allow gays and lesbians to marry.
In striking down Proposition 8, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals crafted a narrow ruling that said because gay Californians already had been given the right to marry, the state could not later take it away. The ruling studiously avoided any sweeping pronouncements.
Edie and Thea
In the DOMA case, the court will be taking on a provision that has been struck down by four federal district courts and two appeals courts.
The justices chose for their review the case of 83-year-old Edith Windsor, who sued to challenge a $363,000 federal estate tax bill after her partner of 44 years died in 2009.
Windsor, who goes by Edie, married Thea Spyer in 2007 after doctors told them that Spyer would not live much longer. She suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. Spyer left everything she had to Windsor.
There is no dispute that if Windsor had been married to a man, her estate tax bill would have been $0.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York agreed with a district judge that the provision of DOMA deprived Windsor of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.
Seattle Times staff reporter Brian M. Rosenthal contributed to this report.