Friday, March 27, 2009

Japan to Recognize Foreign Marriages of Same-Sex Couples

" A legal union, you're rounding third base"

As reported by the AFP, Japan's justice ministry has issued a directive that will allow Japanese citizens to marry partners of the same-sex in foreign countries that allow this. So, while Japan is no Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Massachusetts, or Connecticut (all of which allow same-sex couples to marry, but it's now ahead of the vast majority of U.S. states on this issue.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pro-Marriage Equality Initiative Filed

"Ooo and it's alright and it's comin' 'long"

Yesterday, March 19, 2009, the California Secretary of State provided an official summary for a proposed initiative (the "California Marriage Equality Act") to re-amend the state constitution to restore same-sex couples' equal right to marry. Proponents will now have until August 19 to gather the not quite 700,000 signature required to qualify it to go before the voters. Besides repealing the section of the California Constitution added by Proposition 8, the measure specifies -- apparently to forestall some of the chief fear tactics used in the Yes on 8 campaign -- that it shall not be interpreted to change school curricula or force clergy to perform services or duties "incongruent with their faith."

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.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Mama take just a little bit from my heart"

Justice Kennard and "small" deviations from equality

The California Supreme Court held oral arguments today in the litigation challenging Proposition 8, which the voters approved to change the state constitution to strip away the right to marry from same-sex couples. It’s always perilous to read too much into the Justices’ questions. But one line of questioning by Justice Joyce Kennard suggests a possible misapprehension about the nature of the arguments against the validity of Proposition 8, which I hope does not ultimately lead her astray. Here’s my reasoning. (All quotations are from my notes from watching the webcast of the oral arguments and have not been verified against the archived footage.)

Shannon Minter, Legal Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, argued first on behalf of the challengers of Prop 8. Justice Kennard asked Mr. Minter: “Is it your argument in this proceeding that the passage of Proposition 8 also took away in addition to the label of ‘marriage’ the core of the substantive rights of marriage that the majority of this court outlined in the marriage cases last year? Continuing a similar theme, Justice Kennard questioned Raymond Marshall who argued for a variety of civil rights groups opposed to Proposition 8: “Given the precedential values that have been decided by this Court in previous decisions, how do you distinguish them here where the people left in place most of what this Court declared to be proper under the California constitution?” And: “What about the argument that what we are dealing with in this particular case is a narrow exception to equal protection, by denying same-sex couples the label of ‘marriage,’ but leaving intact the substantive rights this Court established in the marriage cases last year? …. You haven’t eliminated or taken away equal protection.” And when Mr. Minter stepped up for rebuttal, Justice Kennard incredulously asked: “Is it still your view that the sky has fallen in as a result of Proposition 8 and gays and lesbians are left with nothing?”

One possible implication of these lines of questioning would be to suggest that Proposition 8 isn’t a revision if it only deprives same-sex couples of part of the right to marry and doesn’t wholly strip gay and lesbian people of all equal protection rights. But those positions are not being argued by any of the parties or amici in the case, and for good reason. Let me take them in order.

First, it would be a colossally bad move for the Court to embrace a standard that said a proposed constitutional change would count as a revision if but only if it takes away all benefit a group of people might get from a right but not if it takes away only a portion. Were that the rule, initiative drafters could always take care to preserve some application of the right they want to strip from a group and thereby bring it within the scope of the initiative-amendment power, rather than having to pursue the more deliberative and cumbersome revision process (which requires supermajority votes in each house of the state legislature). An all-or-nothing rule of this sort would be readily evaded and would defeat the point of the California constitution’s provision of different ways to make two different kinds of changes.

The argument could not really be salvaged by adopting a standard that says, a proposed constitutional change counts as an amendment (adoptable via initiative) if it takes away only a little bit of a constitutional right, but not if it takes away too much of the right. Balancing tests may be inevitable in constitutional law, but if the California Supreme Court thinks the doctrinal rules they adopt ought to give at least some guidance to voters and legislators, something less mushy than “I know it when I see it” (which was former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s unhelpful characterization of “obscenity,” a content-free standard that Justice Carlos Moreno quoted in today’s arguments).

Second, the observation that gay and lesbian people still enjoy some equal protection rights after Proposition 8 is not really responsive to the challengers’ argument. They contend that Prop 8 should be deemed a revision to the state constitution that could only originate in the legislature, not via petition-initiative the way Prop 8 was adopted. The reason they offer is that it strips away not just any right but a right that is “fundamental” in our state constitution (here, the right to marry), and that it takes that right away not just from any group but from a group (here, lesbigay persons) defined by a suspect classification (here, sexual orientation). By doing that, Prop 8 doubly undermines the historic role of the court and denies it the ability to enforce the principles of equality that are at the very foundation of the California constitution.

The challengers are not claiming that gay and lesbian people would currently enjoy no constitutional equality rights if Prop 8 is part of the constitution. If they were making that hyperbolic claim, then the assumptions of Kennard’s questions would be adequate rejoinder to the challengers’ argument.

The challenge to Proposition 8 instead rests on the very sensible contention that, if Proposition 8 is a permissible exercise of the amendment power, then the Court would have to include that any law which took away any right from any group of people would also have to be permissible, and what that means is that any possible equal protection holding of the state supreme court could be overruled by a bare majority of voters (after a petition got signatures from a mere 8% of those who voted in the last election for governor). And, as I believe Therese Stewart, arguing for the City and County of San Francisco put it, “a guarantee of equal protection that is changeable by a majority is no guarantee at all.

To understand why, first note that typically a “fundamental right” is the kind of right most carefully protected by the judiciary from governmental infringement. Last year the California Supreme Court held that the right to marry was fundamental. And the Court was clearly and explicitly talking about the right to enter the institution called “marriage” that different-sex couples were allowed to enter. Prop 8 takes that right away just from same-sex couples. Since fundamental rights are the most judicially protected rights, no other right would have a stronger claim on the Court. So, if a majority can do it with the right to marry, it can do it with any right.

Next bear in mind that discrimination against a group defined by a suspect classification (like a racial minority, or women, or lesbigay people) is subject to more powerful judicial scrutiny than any other form of discrimination. So if it’s okay to take away a fundamental right from such a group, as Prop 8 attempts, then a mere amendment passed by a bare majority of the electorate could take away a fundamental right from any group.

What the challengers are arguing, therefore, is that it’s not just the dignitary harm that Proposition 8 inflicts upon same-sex couples and their families that renders Prop 8 a revision. Rather, it is the principle that a decision upholding Prop 8 would have to embody: Any right may be taken away from any group by a mere amendment passed by a bare majority of voters, with no filter of legislative deliberation required (as would be the case for a proposed constitutional revision).

Dean Kenneth Starr, arguing for the official proponents of Proposition 8, did not shrink from that conclusion. He made clear that he thought there was no limit in the California constitution to what voters could do to strip away any rights from any group. That might be regrettable, but it’s just the constitution we have, he basically said.

Now, he did offer the Justices reassurance by arguing that the “backstop” or “failsafe” to prevent horrid occurrences from happening was the U.S. Constitution. But this argument is in tension with the long-held position that the rights guarantees of the California constitution are independent of the federal constitution. Our rights under the state constitution are to be interpreted as forces of their own, not dependent upon the federal constitution or the federal government. The point of our California constitution is to secure the blessings of liberty, which include the freedom to marry, as counsel for the challengers observed during argument today.

Let us hope that at least four members of the California Supreme Court remember that and do not shy away from their duty to preserve the foundational commitment to equality enshrined throughout the California Constitution. As Ms. Stewart reminded the Court, democracy can only lay claim to legitimacy if it embraces the commitment to equal protection. Proposition 8 attempts to erode that commitment, taking away the most judicially protected kind of right from a group subject to the highest level of judicial protection. The fact that it leaves other rights or other aspects of a right intact – for now – should not be enough to obscure the pernicious way it says to the Court, “no matter how strong your constitutional ruling, a bare majority can wipe it out with the most casual kind of constitutional change.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"You Make Me Sick"

Supreme Court upholds state law suits vs. drug manufacturers for failure to warn

The U.S. Supreme Court today decided Wyeth v. Levine, holding 6-3 that a drug manufacture could be sued under Vermont products liability law for failure to give adequate warnings even though its drug label had been approved by the Food & Drug Administration.

Justice Stevens's majority opinion, joined by Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, rejected the argument that federal law and the label approval preempted the suit brought under state law. Justice Thomas did not join the majority opinion but agree with it judgment; he wrote separately to question judicial invalidation of state law under "implied preemption" doctrine (as distinguished from cases where federal statutes expressly specify that they are preempting state law) based on nebulous "frustration" of federal purposes. Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, dissented, arguing that Supreme Court precedent and general principles of implied preemption forbade this suit under state law.

As a consequence of today's decision, states retain important freedom to protect their residents from harms flowing from inadequate warnings on pharmaceuticals.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"Marry Me a Little"

GLAD sues challenging DOMA

Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) has filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the interpretation and constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as applied to the various plaintiffs.

The complaint asserts that Section 3 of DOMA, which refuses to recognize any marriage of a same-sex couple even if lawfully entered in some U.S. state or foreign country, violates the equal protection obligations the U.S. Constitution places on the federal government. The suit is not challenging DOMA or even Section 3 on its face, but only as applied to the plaintiffs to deny them equal benefits under "laws governing benefits for federal employees and retirees, the Internal Revenue Code, the Social Security laws and the laws and regulations governing issuance of passports." In some cases, the suit alleges, the laws have been interpreted in ways that DOMA does not requirel; where DOMA does require the discrimination at issue, it is unconstitutional, according to the lawsuit.

The suit does not yet specify whether or not the plaintiffs are arguing that the constitutionality of DOMA must be assessed under what the court's term "strict scrutiny," the least deferential form of judicial review. It could be read as arguing that these applications of DOMA do not even have a "rational basis," the most deferential form of review requiring only that challenged laws have a "rational relationship" to "a legitimate governmental interest." In particular, the various counts of the complaint conclude that DOMA "creates a classification that treats similarly-situated individuals differently without
justification," and it maintains that Section 3 of DOMA "is motivated by disapproval of gay men
and lesbians and their relationships, an illegitimate federal interest." (Some of the asserted federal interests are rejected as illegitimate, and others are said either to restate the purpose to discriminate without explaining it or actually to be "subverted" by DOMA.)

It will be interesting to see how this litigation unfolds. Perhaps it will be the stimulus needed for Congress to repeal at least the federal definition section of DOMA, which as both the complaint in this lawsuit and Bob Barr in recent public pronouncements have concluded, undermines federalism by arrogating to the federal government the power to determine what is a valid marriage outside the immigration and naturalization context.

GLAD is the legal rights organization that litigated and won the Massachusetts case that recognized same-sex couples' right to marry under that state's constitution.