Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Kennard Conundrum?

Meaning of California Supreme Court Justice's Vote Not to Hear Prop 8 Challenges

The Los Angeles Times has reported here that "legal experts" are puzzled by California Supreme Court Associate Justice Joyce Kennard's statement when the court decided to hear the challenges to Prop 8. The court's order noted that Justice Kennard "would deny these petitions without prejudice to the filing in this court of an appropriate answer to determine Proposition 8's effect, if any, on the marriages of same-sex couples performed before Proposition 8's adoption."

The Times notes that Justice Kennard's "vote against hearing the legal challenges [might have been] procedural -- for example, she might have wanted them to be filed in lower courts first . . . ." But the paper then curiously claims that "a close reading of the court's one-page order suggests that gay-rights advocates may have lost a usually predictable ally in their effort to overturn Proposition 8." Perhaps Kennard has already decided she doesn't accept the interpretation of constitutional "revision" advanced by Prop 8's challengers.

To support this interpretation, which I shall call the pessimistic reading of Justice Kennard's statement, the Times reasons as follows:
The order said Kennard would hear a new case to resolve the validity of the 18,000 same-sex marriages "without prejudice" -- a phrase that indicates she was open to arguments on the issue. But she declined to modify her denial of the Proposition 8 challenges with those same words.
But this reading is flawed.

What Justice Kennard said was that she would deny these petitions challenging Prop 8 without prejudice to -- without harming -- the Prop 8 challengers' ability to file new suits about Prop 8's meaning in the California Supreme Court. A denial of the petition without qualifying language is non-precedential and would leave the parties free to file a new suit making precisely the same arguments in state trial court. (Legal beagles can find confirmation of this claim in the California Supreme Court's decision in Funeral Directors Association of Los Angeles & Southern California v. Board of Funeral Directors & Embalmers of California, 22 Cal. 2d 104, 136 P.2d 785 (1943).) So, even if the Times is reading the scope of the "without prejudice" caveat correctly, it does not mean that Justice Kennard said she would have voted against the constitutional challenge to Proposition 8 on the merits. Rather, she just didn't vote now to hear the case in the state supreme court originally.

So, while we cannot know what was in Justice Kennard's mind unless she tells us, there is less to support the pessimistic reading than the Times suggested.

On the other hand, there is more to support an optimistic reading than the Times article includes. As I just explained, Justice Kennard's preferred vote to deny the petition for a writ of mandamus (the technical term for the lawsuit filed in the California Supreme Court by by those challenging Proposition 8) is not a vote on the merits of that argument. It would not count as an adverse decision against the challengers even if she had a majority to go along with her. The challengers would be free to re-start a legal challenge to Prop 8 by filing a complaint in the trial court. Whoever lost would certainly appeal, and whoever lost in the Court of Appeal would ask the state supreme court to hear a further appeal, which it would be free to do even having earlier denied the Prop 8 challengers' petitions.

And it is plausible to think that Justice Kennard had exactly that in mind, rather than a belief that the challengers' argument was wrong. In a 1999 decision in Senate of the State of California v. Jones (988 P.2d 1089, 90 Cal. Rptr. 2d 810), a majority of the court considered a case arguing that a proposed Proposition 24 should be struck from the ballot for various constitutional reasons, including a claim that it violated the rule limiting initiatives to a single subject and a claim that it would amount to a "revision" of the state constitution , not a minor "amendment" of it, and so must start in the legislature. (That is the same sort of revision claim at the heart of the current challenges to Proposition 8.) The majority ruled that proposed Prop 24 violated the single-subject rule, and it never went before the voters.

Justice Kennard dissented (joined by Justice Janice Rogers Brown), but she did not reach the merits of the single-subject or revision arguments. She objected to what she called the majority's "hasty decision to declare invalid" that measure. She thought there would be plenty of time to decide the issue later if need be.

So, on the optimistic reading, Justice Kennard would deny the petitions challenging Prop 8 because she saw no need to "rush to decision" (to quote her Jones dissent again) about whether Prop 8 was an invalid revision or a valid amendment to the state constitution. The "without prejudice" qualification could have reflected a view that for the already married same-sex couples, there was an important reason for the California Supreme Court to decide whether they were affected without waiting for litigation to work its way up through the state court system – to remove any uncertainty about the validity of those marriages. (On this view, Kennard's statement could also be evidence that she's leaning toward holding that Prop 8 would, if valid, operate purely prospectively and not touch the existing marriages.)

Granted, Jones was a pre-election review case where the court set itself an even tighter schedule than it did when it decided to hear the challenges to Prop 8. But the reasons Kennard wanted the court to delay there could also be applicable here: "this challenge to Proposition [8] presents issues that are close and difficult, and because there has been inadequate time to give these issues the thoughtful attention and deliberation they deserve."

So, we really are left trying to read tea leaves, but the leaves don't tilt against the challenges to Proposition 8 the way the LA Times suggested.

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