The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday against video streaming the high-profile federal court trial on California's voter-approved marriage definition.
By a 5-4 vote, the high court overruled Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker's decision to allow real-time streaming of the trial in San Francisco for viewing in other federal courthouses in California, New York, Oregon and Washington.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court criticized the federal judge for attempting to change the rules "at the eleventh hour to treat this case differently than other trials."
"Not only did it (the District Court) ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended, its express purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue," it stated. "If courts are to require that others follow regular procedures, courts must do so as well."
The high court's conservative majority also noted that supporters of California's Proposition 8 have been subjected to "harassment as a result of public disclosure of their support," including death threats, confrontational phone calls and e-mail messages, lost jobs, Internet blacklists, boycotts, vandalism and physical violence.
According to lawyers defending Prop 8, Walker's decision to stream the trial – first live to other courts and later to the public through YouTube – could have put Prop 8 witnesses at further risk.
"We are relieved that the United States Supreme Court intervened today to protect our witnesses from the harm that would come with televising the Prop 8 trial," commented Andy Pugno, general counsel for ProtectMarriage.com.
"As we have said from the start, televising the proceedings in a high-profile case is unprecedented in federal court, and impedes our ability to get a fair and impartial trial," he added. "Most importantly, putting Prop 8 supporters on the witness stand and broadcasting their testimony worldwide would virtually guarantee a serious risk of harm threatened by anti-Prop 8 extremists."
Prop 8, which was passed by California voters in 2008 by a 52 percent vote, effectively defined marriage in the state's constitution as the union of one man and one woman. The trial in San Francisco, which commenced Monday, seeks to determine whether gay marriage is a constitutional right and, in effect, whether the passing of Prop 8 violates that right.
The case, which will be watched closely by people on both sides of the marriage debate, could lead to a precedent for whether gay marriage becomes legal nationwide and, as traditional marriage advocates say, whether the nation's democratic principles will be upheld.
Regardless of how the trial in San Francisco concludes, an appeal will likely be filed to the Supreme Court, which could end up determining whether gay Americans have a right to marry.
The case, which will be heard for another week or two, is Perry v. Schwarzenegger.