Friday, March 6, 2009

"A Horse with No Name"?

Chief Justice George and Marriage Without the Name

During oral argument yesterday in the California Supreme Court, Chief Justice Ronald George more than once questioned attorneys for those challenging Proposition 8 about the scope of the measure. I think his questions may not have fully appreciated the structure of the challengers’ “revision” argument (or may just have been designed to elicit a public articulation by counsel). But it seemed that the Chief Justice and the attorneys may have been slightly talking past one another.

In his first questions and comments to Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights arguing on behalf of challengers to Prop 8, the Chief Justice suggested that the petitioners assumed that Prop 8 overturned not only same-sex couples right to marry but also the California Supreme Court’s holding in the marriage cases last year that sexual orientation was a suspect classification and laws discriminating against gay and lesbian people subject to non-deferential “strict scrutiny” review by courts. “To the extent Proposition 8 is to be construed narrowly,” not affecting the other holdings the Court rendered, Chief Justice George suggested, “your argument that this is a wholesale revision as opposed to an amendment is weakened.”

Mr. Minter quickly clarified that he did not assume that Prop 8 touched those other holdings of the marriage cases. But that position does not weaken the argument that Prop 8 should be judged a “revision” to the state constitution. The Chief Justice’s phrasing “wholesale revision” is, as he is well aware, not the terminology used by the state constitution, which simply distinguishes between a power to revise and a power to amend the constitution (without defining either or the difference). “Wholesale revision” sounds like what the Court in past decisions has called a “quantitative revision” to the constitution, one which ranges so broadly and changes or adds so much to the document that it cannot be judged a mere, minor perfecting “amendment.” Given the number of clauses in the state constitution that do guarantee equality in various ways, there is a nonfrivolous argument that Prop 8 is a quantitative restriction. But it’s not the strongest basis for the challenge to the measure, and Minter appropriately noted that the parties were not making that argument when Justice Kennard asked about this a little further into the argument.

Rather, petitioners are arguing that Proposition 8 amounts to what the Court has termed a “qualitative amendment,” one that although not so voluminous in its changes nonetheless has a profound effect on existing constitutional arrangements. It is the denial of equal access to a fundamental right based on a bare majority vote, which is all that Prop 8 needed to pass, that cuts the judiciary out of its longstanding role of protecting fundamental rights and particularly vulnerable minorities, diminishes the foundational guarantees of equality in the state constitution, correspondingly deprives California’s democracy of the assurance of equal citizenship and equal protection that is necessary to the consent of the governed and democratic legitimacy, and marks the measure as a revision and not a mere amendment to the state constitution. All that holds true even though Prop 8 leaves intact other salutary aspects of the California Supreme Court’s decision in the marriage cases.

Yet another point of possible communication failure may have come with respect to the question whether Proposition 8 leaves intact rights that come with marriage, other than what Chief Justice George termed “the nomenclature” or “the label” marriage.

When the Chief Justice next addressed Minter, George asked: “What about the other rights though that go beyond the mere designation. In answering that, what significance if any do you put to the rebuttal argument [in the official ballot pamphlet that] stated … Your yes vote means that only marriage between a man and a woman will be valid or recognized in California, but Proposition 8 will not take away any other rights or benefits of gay couples?” (As a sidenote, it was a little perplexing to hear the Chief Justice speak about “mere designation” after writing last year’s opinion that so eloquently articulated the ways in which same-sex couples’ being treated the same as different-sex couples in their relationships, including access to the designation marriage, was integral to the equal dignity and respect required by the state constitution.)

Likewise, when Chief Justice George was speaking with Kenneth Starr, Dean of the Pepperdine Law School and counsel for the official proponents of Proposition 8 defending the measure, Dean Starr tried to insist that Prop 8 did not “invalidate” the marriages of same-sex couples entered into before the election, that there remained a “full panoply of rights.” The Chief Justice immediately pressed him, “So they keep the rights?” Whereupon Starr backed off or clarified, saying that the pre-election marriages of same-sex couples were not voided retroactively from the outset, but that California could not generally treat those couples who entered them as marriages after the election. But George wanted to know why that was, why they wouldn’t keep the rights other than the name, “even though the rebuttal argument [in the ballot pamphlet] says Proposition 8 takes away no other rights or benefits?”

What Chief Justice George might have been contemplating was a state of affairs in which the Court holds that Proposition 8 takes away the power of the state of California to call same-sex couples “married” or their relationships “marriages,” but leaves in place all the rights acquired by couples who entered into their former-marriages before the election, both rights that were used before the election and ongoing rights from November 5, 2008 forward. These presumably would not be domestic partnerships, because there are some rights of marriage that the domestic parternships lack (not to mention that they would not have been entered into in the fashion that the domestic partnership law provides). They would rather be some new, as yet unnamed relationship created by the state constitution as a back-up, partial-equality measure if Proposition 8 became a valid part of the constitution but only stripped away “the nomenclature” of marriage. A horse with no name, as it were.

That would not be an unreasonable reading of the effect of Proposition 8 in light of its language and the official ballot description. It’s a little unusual – but then again, Proposition 8 was itself an unprecedented purported exercise of the amendment power. And it would also seem to suggest that the domestic partnership law would have to be broadened, by virtue of the California constitution, to be identical to state marriage law except for the name.

1 comment:

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