The question of same-sex marriage went before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday in the first of two oral arguments this week on separate appeals.
The opening public session was devoted to a California ban approved by voters. In a swirl of analysis after the event, the question was whether the justices would issue a sweeping decision this year on whether states can say who can or can't get married. Or would they leave the current patchwork of state laws in place, choosing to let state legislatures and courts sort it all out?
Here are five things we learned from arguments in this case.
1. Buyer's remorse
Many of the nine justices wondered why they were deciding whether states can or should ban same sex marriage.
Opponents of Proposition 8, the voter-approved measure prohibiting the practice, want the court to say that gay and lesbian couples have an "equal protection" right to wed.
That is the constitutional issue the court agreed to decide when it accepted an appeal from the referendum's supporters. But a cautious court seemed to pull back in the 80-minute public session.
"The problem with the case is that you're really asking, particularly because of the sociological evidence you cite, for us to go into uncharted waters," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, viewed by many as the one to watch on the closely divided court. "I just wonder if the case was properly granted" for review.
The court could easily say private citizens who put the measure before the voters in 2008 do not have "standing" or jurisdiction to now appeal the case.
That would hand gay rights supporters a narrow victory, confined only to California. It would foreclose a broader ruling that might apply to all 50 states, or even those nine states like California that have civil union laws, that stop just short of marriage for homosexual couples.
2. Kennedy's control
If there was any doubt, Tuesday arguments showed this is Kennedy's court. The 76-year-old jurist is likely to be the controlling or "swing" vote for however the court decides the tricky issues.
Four more liberal justices appeared at least open to the idea that same-sex marriage should be allowed in California. Three more conservative justices seemed to take a more "traditional" view: that marriage is between one man and one woman. Justice Clarence Thomas, who does not speak at oral arguments, seems likely to agree.
That leaves the moderate-conservative Kennedy possibly in the middle and perhaps ready to offer a more nuanced, compromise view.
The arguments from competing lawyers appeared to be especially targeted at Kennedy's concerns.
Those who have worked with him have said he often agonizes openly in tough, hot-button cases. Deciding these issues for him is not an easy intellectual exercise.
That uncertainly was expressed in one remark on Tuesday during arguments when he summarized the competing legal positions and perhaps his own internal dilemma.
"I think there's substance to the point that sociological information is new" on the effect of same-sex marriage, he said. "We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more. On the other hand, there is an immediate legal injury ... and that's the voice of these children. There are some 40,000 children in California, according to (a brief in the case in opposition to Proposition 8), that live with same-sex parents. And they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?"
3. Scalia being Scalia
A good Supreme Court argument would not be complete if there was not some rousing rhetoric from the senior associate justice. Antonin Scalia did not disappoint, and he clearly was not buying the argument same-sex marriage was a constitutional right.
Consider this exchange where Scalia, the father of nine and grandfather of three dozen more, questioned his old friend Theodore Olson, the attorney opposing Proposition 8.
"I'm curious, when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?" he asked. "1791? 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted?"
Olson: "When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages?" which the court overturned in 1967.
Scalia: "Don't give me a question to my question." That brought laughter to the courtroom.
Liberal blogs had a field day with his remarks, openly questioning whether Scalia could give fair-minded consideration of the views expressed by gay rights supporters.