LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California's attorney general said same-sex weddings would resume statewide within weeks, if not sooner, despite further litigation threatened by opponents after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday paved the way for gay marriages in the state.
The high court refused to hear an appeal by gay marriage opponents of a lower-court opinion overturning a 2008 voter-approved state constitutional amendment, known as Proposition 8, that defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
California Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris moved swiftly to direct officials in the state's 58 counties to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples once the court ruling takes effect, expected to occur in 25 days.
But Prop 8 supporters insisted that legal wrangling over the issue would continue and argued that Wednesday's Prop 8 ruling should be binding only on the two same-sex couples who brought suit against the gay marriage ban in May 2009.
Harris, who declined to defend Prop 8 against their court challenge, said her office would take action to enforce removal of the ban "in the unlikely ... event that any county decided to violate the law."
California in 2008 briefly joined a handful of states then recognizing gay matrimony, and some 18,000 same-sex couples were wed during a five-month window between a state Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and passage of Prop 8 in November of that year.
In August 2010 then-U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker declared Prop 8 unconstitutional following a three-week trial that marked the first challenge in federal court to any state law barring same-sex matrimony.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later stayed Walker's ruling to keep the gay marriage prohibition in effect until the case had finished running its course.
The appeals court on Wednesday said its stay of Walker's decision and his injunction against enforcing Prop 8 would remain in place for at least 25 days, the amount of time Supreme Court normally gives petitioners to seek a re-hearing.
Earlier in the day, Harris urged the 9th Circuit to lift its stay sooner so that same-sex marriages could resume in a matter of days, rather than weeks.
"As soon as they lift that stay, marriages are on. The wedding bells will ring," she said at a late-morning news conference in Los Angeles.
"It's just the right thing to do," she said, adding that at best it would "probably take at least a couple of days. But I'm hoping that it will happen much sooner than 25 days from now."
Harris, released a legal opinion from her office asserting that county clerks "are state officials subject to the supervision and control" of the state Public Health Department for purposes of administering marriage licenses.
"I am absolutely certain and sure that our analysis on this is correct," she said, citing a 2004 state Supreme Court decision, the language in Judge Walker's ruling and federal law.
Prop 8 supporters vehemently disagreed.
"It goes down to the trial court, and that only applies to two couples. It wasn't a class-action suit. So what Governor Jerry Brown and others are doing is going to be challenged in court," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which fought to uphold Prop 8.
John Eastman, a Chapman University law professor who chairs the National Organization for Marriage, said a number of legal avenues were open to foes of same-sex marriage.
He suggested officials in some of California's more conservative counties might defy the governor and refuse to issue licenses to gay couples, invoking the legal argument that the state did not properly defend Prop 8 in the first place.
"There is no question that there's going to be further litigation on this matter," said Jane Schacter, a constitutional law expert at Stanford University Law School. But she said she believed the governor and attorney general would prevail.
As for the possibility of gay marriage opponents going back to the ballot to get their way, Frank Schubert, a strategist for the Prop 8 campaign, said that option "seems very far off."
Additional reporting by Dana Feldman and Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles and Dan Levine and Peter Hendersen in San Francisco; Editing by Mohammad Zargham