Friday, December 19, 2008

Attorney General Sides with Marriage Equality

Jerry Brown's Brief Argues Prop 8 Is Invalid

The brief in the Proposition 8 litigation filed by Jerry Brown, the state's Attorney General, agrees with the petitioners challenging Prop 8 that the measure is a more profound revision to the Constitution, not a minor amendment, and therefore unconstitutional because it cannot be adopted through the initiative process that was used. While this does not guarantee that a majority of the California Supreme Court Justices will agree, it is a big development in the case and likely to weigh heavily in the Justices' minds.

UPDATE: Actually, the Attorney General's argument is that, although the challengers have not to his mind shown that Prop 8 counts as a revision, Prop 8 is nonetheless invalid because it attempts to eliminate fundamental rights without a compelling justification, which in his view is not a power encompassed by the initiative-amendment power. So, although he doesn't agree with the revision argument, Jerry Brown agrees with the challengers that Prop 8 is not within the initiative power. Interesting nuance, perhaps offering one or more Justices a third path, one that doesn't accept the revision argument but that nonetheless holds Prop 8 to be invalid.

Prop 8 Defenders Bring Out Big Gun

Kenneth Starr to represent Proposition 8's official proponents

Today, December 19, is the deadline for the briefs of the defenders of the validity of Proposition 8 to be filed in the California Supreme Court. - Yes on 8 has announced in a press release that Pepperdine Dean Kenneth W. Starr (remember him from his stint as Special Prosecutor in Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky affair?) will be representing the official ballot proponents in the state supreme court both defending Prop 8's validity (no surprise on that ground) and arguing that Prop 8 also doesn't allow California to continue to treat the same-sex couples married before the election as married (also no surprise, given statements on the Yes on 8 web site, even though the official ballot title and language were not nearly so clear about this kind of retroactive effect).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The United Straights of America?

Obama Inauguration & UN Declaration

In a double symbolic blow to sexual orientation equality in the U.S. today, it was announced that the invocation at the inauguration of President Elect Barack Obama will be given by Rev. Rick Warren, and the U.S. refused to vote in support of a United Nations declaration introduced in the General Assembly by France. Warren, the leader of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, actively campaigned for Proposition 8 to strip same-sex couples of their fundamental right to marry under the California Constitution. France's nonbinding declaration, supported by 66 countries, affirmed that international human rights protections extend to all persons "regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity." Score -1 for the outgoing administration and -1 for the incoming administration.

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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Marriage & Equality Rights to Return to California Supreme Court

Court grants review in challenges to Prop 8

As widely expected, the California Supreme Court issued an order (here) indicating that it would decide whether Prop 8 is invalid as a revision of the state constitution. In addition, the court will determine whether it is invalid as a violation of separation of powers principles (an argument made in the petition filed by Gloria Allred) and whether or not Prop 8 has any effect on same-sex couples married before the election. Also no huge surprise, the court denied the requests for a preliminary stay of Prop 8. The court has set an expedited schedule for briefing, which will be completed in January.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Californians Enshrine Discrimination in Constitution

Prop 8 passage ensures questions

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Proposition 8, which eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry in California, is ahead, 52% to 48%. Almost 95% of California's voting precincts have been counted, and the counties with significant measures of votes outstanding voted heavily in favor of Prop 8.

This assures that a new round of legal questions will have to be confronted. Was the measure merely an amendment to the constitution, or was it a qualitatively deeper "revision,"? If it amounts to a revision, then the measure was procedurally irregular and void, for revisions must originate in the state legislature with a 2/3 vote of each house before going to the voters. Prop 8, in contrasts, got on the ballot via initiative (registered voters signing petitions).

What is the fate in California of existing marriages? Does Proposition 8 operate prospectively only, effectively "grandfathering" in the estimated 16,000 same-sex couples who married between mid-June and the passage of Prop 8 last night? Even if it bars, California from continuing to treat those couples as married, it probably (though this remains to be worked out) would not stop other states from recognizing the pre-Prop 8 marriages. States such as Massachusetts, which allows same-sex couples to marry civilly, or New York, which doesn't itself marry same-sex couples but recognizes their validly entered marriages from other jurisdictions, are likely free to continue recognizing these marriages. I have sometimes described the quasi-retroactive view of Prop 8 as akin to a forced divorce, but it is probably more like a legal blind spot on the part of California; these marriages were validly entered, the parties have not divorced, so even though California will no longer treat them as marriages, others states most likely will be able to.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Latest Field Poll Shows Prop 8 Trailing

A new Field poll released on Halloween shows likely voters opposing Proposition 8 by 5 percentage points. The poll, taken of 996 randomly selected likely voters surveyed from October 18 to 28 ,shows 49% opposing Prop 8 to 44% supporting it, with 7% reporting undecided. The poll notes that the gap between the two sides is down from a month earlier, when a higher proportion of survey respondents reported opposition to Prop 8. What it doesn't note is that even this narrow lead is a dramatic improvement for the supporters of marriage equality/opponents of Prop 8 compared to the Survey U.S.A. poll taken early this month, which showed Prop 8 actually leading by a large margin. It seems that the No on 8 campaign's tracking polls accurately reported that the ads produced to counter the deceptive ads of the Prop 8 supporters are working.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Senator Feinstein Condemns Proposition 8

"You have lighted the road leading home"

With one week left until election day, Senator Diane Feinstein has released a TV ad for the No on Prop 8 campaign. A YouTube version of the ad can be viewed here. Next week we will learn whether a majority of voters agree with her that Proposition 8 "would be a terrible mistake for California."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Oct. 22 Poll Shows Prop 8 Losing Among Likely Voters

"Don't Stop the Love"

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a highly regarded polling outfit, just released a new poll on October 22 showing that likely voters oppose Proposition 8 by a margin of 52% to 44%. The PPIC poll is based on telephone interviews conducted October 12-19, and has a margin of error of ± 3%. These numbers, taken after the No on 8 campaign started running its ads, is a reversion to numbers closer to what were seen all summer long, before the Yes on 8 ads started running. The full study can be found here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Connecticut Constitution Protects Same-Sex Couples' Right to Marry

"Ding dong! the bells are gonna chime"

The Connecticut Supreme Court held today that it violated the equal protection rights of gay and lesbian persons under the Connecticut constitution to deny them the freedom to marry civilly. The Court's opinion in Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health rejected the state's argument that the marriage exclusion was constitutional because Connecticut offers same-sex couples "civil unions" with the same state-controlled legal incidents of marriage. At least when such an exclusion "singles out a group that has historically been the object of scorn, intolerance, ridicule or worse," even "symbolic or intangible" differential treatment is a constitutional harm Connecticut courts may address. And because marriage "is an institution of transcendent historical, cultural and social significance," whereas the new vintage status of civil unions (created by the Connecticut legislature during this lawsuit) most surely is not," the two legal regimes are not equal in a way insulating them from judicial review, the 4-3 majority ruled.

The Connecticut majority held that the marriage exclusion was a "quasi-suspect classification," which means that the state had to produce "an exceedingly persuasive justification" for its discrimination, not one that is barely rational. (This intermediate scrutiny standard is more deferential than the strict scrutiny used by the California Supreme Court in In Re Marriage Cases this past May.) The court rejected the state's claim that promoting uniformity and consistency with other states' and countries' marriage laws was a sufficiently important purpose to satisfy intermediate scrutiny. And it also rejected the argument that preserving the "traditional" definition of marriage as limited to relationships between one man and one woman could justify the statute.

And so the court ordered the case be sent back down to grant the plaintiffs a declaration that the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage violated the Connecticut constitution and an injunction requiring state officials to let them marry.

Now, the question remains whether California will remain with Massachusetts and Connecticut as the only states in the union to allow same-sex couples to marry, or whether the voters will approve Proposition 8 on November 4 and eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Supreme Court Reaffirms Ban on Death Penalty for Child Rape

Military context matters less to constitutionality of state criminal laws

Today the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition for rehearing in Kennedy v. Louisiana (blogged here), its decision from June 2008 holding that the death penalty for raping a child is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. Reserving the question whether unique considerations might allow the military to impose punishments that would be unconstitutional in the civilian context, the majority's Statement respecting the denial of rehearing reiterated the Court's emphasis on the non-military criminal rape laws of the states and the federal government as reflecting a consensus on the impermissibility of executing someone for a crime (such as raping a child) not resulting in death.

Monday, August 18, 2008

AALS to move meetings from Manchester Grand Hyatt due to owner's Prop 8 support

"I won't play with you not me"

The Executive Committee of the Association of American Law Schools has issued a statement here (dated August 15) that, in order to ensure maximum participation by its members, all programs at its January 2009 Annual Meeting will be held at the San Diego Marriott rather than the Manchester Grand Hyatt, of which some have called for a boycott due to owner Doug Manchester's extensive support of the effort to change the California Constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. The measure that would do this if passed, Prop 8, will appear on the California ballot in November.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Prop 8 Title & Description Upheld

"Eliminate the negative"?

As reported in the Mercury News here, a California Superior Court judge today rejected the challenge to the re-titling and re-description of Proposition 8 (see Prop 8 Retitled & Redescribed, 26 July 2008, below), the ballot initiative that would change the California constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. No big surprise here. The trial judge was clearly correct that the new descriptive language was neither false nor misleading. Unless the Prop 8 supporters who challenged the language appeal and win, an extremely unlikely prospect, the ballot should go to the printer Monday, August 11 with language that will transparently convey the real impact of Prop 8 were the voters to approve it.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Prop 8 Foes & Fans Raking in Big Bucks

"Money Makes the World Go 'Round"

The fight over whether to adopt Proposition 8 on the November ballot to amend the California constitution to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry seems to be picking up steam financially. On Tuesday, July 29, No on 8-Equality California announced that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is donating $250,000 to help fight the proposed amendment, reports the LA times. But the American Family Association has donated $500,000 to help support it. The Political Blotter blogs about the AFA's and other significant contributions here.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Prop 8 retitled & redescribed

"What's my name again?"

Although grammatically unusual – I would have expected most initiative titles to be noun phrases rather than verb phrases – there's a new name as well as a new summary description for Proposition 8, the proposed marriage-restricting amendment to the California constitution that will be on the ballot on November 4. Seemingly agreeing with some of the second argument in the writ that sought and failed to get the measure removed from the ballot, the state Attorney General announced this week that the measure will be listed as follows on the ballot (barring successful legal challenge):

Proposition 8

Changes California Constitution to eliminate right of same-sex couples to marry. Provides that only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

Fiscal Impact: Over the next few years, potential revenue loss, mainly sales taxes, totaling in the several tens of millions of dollars, to state and local governments. In the long run, likely little fiscal impact to state and local governments.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Court Lets California Constitution Amendment Fight Continue

The California Supreme Court has ruled in Bennett v. Bowen, the case filed seeking to have Proposition 8 removed from the November 4 ballot. (Prop 8 would amend the state constitution to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.) The Court summarily denied the Application for Stay and Petition for Extraordinary Relief, Including Writ of Mandate. See the July 16 entry in the Docket for the case. With that unsurprising development, the battle over the proposed amendment will certainly continue in earnest.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Death Penalty for Raping Child Unconstitutional

"When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint."

The Supreme Court of the United States has held in Kennedy v. Louisiana, by a 5-4 vote, that the state violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments by prescribing the death penalty for rape of a child under the age of 12, where the perpetrator did not kill the child and did not intend to kill the child. Justice Kennedy (no relation to the convicted) wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Breyer, and Ginsburg. Justice Alito dissented, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas. Despite the recognized brutality of the crime against the child victim, Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court insisted on the Constitution's commitment to respecting the dignity of all individuals. "As it related to crimes against individuals," he wrote, "the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim's life was not taken." (Note though the interesting conflict between the Court's framing of its principles -- is the death penalty unconstitutional whenever "life [i]s not taken," or could it be imposed if the perpetrator intended to take life even if the crime did not result in the victim's death? This could become a point of future litigation about the reach of the Eighth Amendment.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Every male has a choice about where he puts his penis."

The British House of Lords today ruled 3-2 that conviction of a male for "rape of a child under age 13" when he, at age 15, had what was accepted in this posture as consensual peno-vaginal intercourse with a 12-year-old female, did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights provision (article 8) guaranteeing respect for private life.

Over the dissents of Lord Hope of Craighead and Lord Carswell, a majority consisting of Lord Hoffman, Baroness Hale of Richmond, and Lord Mance ruled that, given the way the case arose (where the complainant after the defendant was charged admitted lying about her age and later in the proceedings expressed her satisfaction with a guilty plea entered on the basis that the two of them had consensual sex, so that she did not have to testify in court), the crown was not required to proceed against the defendant on the basis of a different section of the Criminal Offences Act of 2003 criminalizing "sexual offences committed by persons under 18," which carries lower penalties and did not bear the term "rape" in its title. The majority believed that the defendant's main objection, since the Court of Appeal had reduced his sentence, was the stigma of the term "rape." But they did not believe that sufficient to violate the defendant's article 8 right to respect for his private life.

Baroness Hale, speaking somewhat plainly, also took pains to reject the characterization of section 5 of the Act as a "strict liability" crime that the Lords were somehow improperly upholding:
The perpetrator has to intend to penetrate. Every male has a choice about where he puts his penis. It may be difficult for him to restrain himself when aroused but he has a choice. There is nothing unjust or irrational about a law which says that if he chooses to put his penis inside a child who turns out to be under 13 he has committed an offence (although the state of his mind may again be relevant to sentence). . . . The object is to make him take responsibility for what he chooses to do with what is capable of being, not only an instrument of great pleasure, but also a weapon of great danger.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Welcome to the (Marriage) Club, Norway

Norway is now set to become the sixth country in the world (following the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa) to allow same-sex couples to marry civilly. The law, passed today, will go into effect January 1, reports the Los Angeles Times in this story.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Arriverderci "Persons, Not Groups"

The U.S. Supreme Court has held in Anup Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture (June 9, 2008) that the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution does not even apply to claims by government employees that the government has treated just one employee unequally and irrationally (as opposed, for example to discriminating against a larger class of employees, such as those of a particular race or sex). The majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts (joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, and Alito) purports to adhere to past pronouncements that the Equal Protection Clause protects "persons, not groups" and confers an individual right. The majority Justices thus carved out an exception from the general equal protection principle, recognized by the Court in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, that government violates equal protection where it "intentionally treat[s an individual] differently from others similarly situated and ... there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment."

The Court's ruling in Engquist that equal protection does not even apply to such "class of one" claims in the government employment setting is driven by a worry about the prospect of every government employee grievance spawning potential constitutional litigation against employers. Justice Stevens's dissent (joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg) argues forcefully that experience shows no need to create such an ad hoc exemption from equal protection principles, certainly not as broad a rule as stated in the majority opinion. And if the majority felt so strongly about the policy basis for its holding, perhaps it would have been more prudent for them to attribute it to the federal law authorizing suits for constitutional violations, Title 42 of the United States Code, section 1983, which could be changed by a Congress that disagreed with its worried, rather than to distort its interpretation of the Constitution itself (which the majority reaffirms binds government even when government acts as an employer), which is beyond legislative correction without satisfaction of the supermajority requirements of constitutional amendment.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

By its original 4-3 majority, he California Supreme Court has denied the requests for rehearing and that it stay the effect of its decision in In re Marriage Cases until after the voters decide in November whether to amend the state Constitution to bar the state from recognizing marriages for same-sex couples. (The court's news release and order are here.) This comes as no surprise to me and most scholars who've commented on the requests, but it does clear the way for counties to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples without fear of liability as early as 5:00 p.m. on Monday, June 16.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"I Want to Be a Part of It, New York, New York"

As reported by the New York Times, the Governor of New York has directed all state agencies to recognize marriages lawfully entered by same-sex couples in other jurisdictions. This would include the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Massachusetts, and very soon California. New York joins Rhode Island in recognizing such lawful marriages. This development might lead to further pressure for New York to pass legislation opening civil marriage to same-sex couples.

"It Doesn't Matter Your Opinion"

Practically speaking, Traci Adams may not be right (see her song "You Are Not God"). Be that as it may, a new Field poll taken in the wake of the California Supreme Court's In re Marriage Cases shows that, even taking into account the margin of error, a majority of registered voters in California now support the right of same-sex couples to marry and oppose the November ballot initiative to amend the Constitution to take away that right. Of course, this is a different result from a Los Angeles Times poll last week, which found bare majorities disapproving of the state Supreme Court decision and supporting the initiative. The new poll from the highly respected outfit may be expected to worry proponents of amending the California Constitution and to galvanize those seeking to keep the state from denying members of same-sex couples the right to marry the person they love.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Take That

The Supreme Court of the U.S. today interpreted two federal civil rights laws to protect workers from retaliation for complaining about prohibited discrimination. In CBOCS West, Inc. v. Humphries, the Court held that a post-Civil War era law, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides that "[a]ll persons ... shall have the same right ... to make and enforce contracts ... as is enjoyed by white citizens," allowed former Cracker Barrel assistant manager to sue not only for his own allegedly racially motivated firing but also for alleged retaliation because he had complained about racially discriminatory treatment of a co-worker. In Gomez-Perez v. Potter, the Court held that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act allowed a postal worker to sue for alleged retaliation against her after she filed an administrative ADEA complaint. In both cases Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented, and Chief Justice Roberts dissented as well in Gomez-Perez.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Don't Ask, Perhaps Tell?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit revived a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Washington (state) challenging the constitutionality of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (DADT) excluding openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual (collectively, “lesbigay”) persons from the U.S. military. The district court had dismissed the suit by the much decorated Major Witt challenging the constitutionality of her suspension from duty as an Air Force reservist nurse because of her relationship with a civilian woman. In Margaret Witt v. Department of the Air Force (9th Cir. May 21, 2008) (opinion also here), a three-judge panel held that the Air Force should be required on remand to satisfy a heightened form of scrutiny under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. A 2-1 majority regarded the panel as bound by earlier Ninth Circuit precedent holding that DADT does not violate the Equal Protection Clause under what the court held was the applicable rational basis review.

Witt is important because it concludes that an earlier Ninth Circuit decision upholding a precursor to the DADT policy under heightened scrutiny under the Due Process Clause was “no longer good law” in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). In particular, the Ninth Circuit panel majority held that “Lawrence applied something more than traditional rational basis review.” (It rejected the contrary interpretation adopted by Lofton v. Secretary of Department of Children & Family Services, 358 F.3rd 804 (11th Cir. 2004), concluding that “the Eleventh Circuit failed to appreciaate both the liberty interest recognized by Lawrence and the heightened-scrutiny balancing employed by Lawrence.”) As a consequence, Witt held, “when the government attempts to intrude upon the personal and private lives of homosexuals [sic], in a manner that implicates the rights identified in Lawrence, the government must advance an important governmental interests, the intrusion must significantly further that interest, and the intrusion must be necessary to further that int. In other words, for the third factor, a less intrusive means must be unlikely to achieve substantially the government’s interest.”

Unfortunately, the Ninth Circuit majority also held “that this heightened scrutiny analysis is as-applied rather than facial.” As a result, the trial court on remand could determine that application of DADT to Major Witt violated her substantive due process rights, but may not be free to hold the policy facially unconstitutional.

Judge Canby concurred in part and dissented part. In his view, the court did not go far enough. It should have held that Lawrence undermined both the Ninth Circuit’s due process cases and its equal protection cases upholding the military exclusion of lesbigay persons. After all, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals originally held that rational basis review was the proper standard for challenges to the military exclusion, the court relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) – which Lawrence v. Texas overruled in 1993! Moreover, Judge Canby argued, consistently with his longstanding view (see, e.g., High Tech Gays v. DISCO, 909 F.2d at 376-80 (9th Cir. 1990) (Canby, J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc), that strict scrutiny should be the governing standard both under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and under the equal protection guarantee embodied in that clause.

Even though the Ninth Circuit panel did not embrace Judge Canby’s persuasive opinion, its recognition that DADT intrudes upon the constitutionally protected liberty of lesbigay persons in troublesome ways is encouraging, as is its holding that Major Witt should have her day in court to challenge her dismissal.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I'm Getting Married in the Morning

The California Supreme Court has just held, 4-3, that the state constitution requires the government to allow same-sex couples to marry civilly. Chief Justice George wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Kennard, Werdegar, and Moreno. The court held that the least deferential form of review applied -- "strict scrutiny" -- because the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and because it "impinges upon a same-sex couple’s fundamental interest in having their family relationship accorded the same respect and dignity enjoyed by an opposite-sex couple." More details soon.

Now, it might not actually be in the morning. Under Rule of Court 8.528(b), the decision will become final in 30 days unless the court orders otherwise. Notably, today's decision does not follow Vermont's or Massachusett's lead in offering legislators 6 months to fix the constitutional problem. In part, that seems unneeded because those states lacked the fairly comprehensive domestic partnership regime California enjoys. What the court instead said was that "Plaintiffs are entitled to the issuance of a writ of mandate directing the appropriate state officials to take all actions necessary to effectuate our ruling in this case so as to ensure that county clerks and other local officials throughout the state, in performing their duty to enforce the marriage statutes in their jurisdictions, apply those provisions in a manner consistent with the decision of this court." Nothing should keep a county (say, San Francisco) that wanted to from complying with the judgment before 30 days have run.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

California, Here I Come?

I'm already in the state, but others might end up traveling here: The California Supreme Court has now posted on its web site that the decision in the marriage cases (seeking the right to marry for same-sex couples) will be issued tomorrow. Generally they post decisions at 10:00 a.m. The opinion should be available here tomorrow at around 10:00.

Friday, May 9, 2008

In Sickness and in Health

Government employers in Michigan cannot offer health insurance to same-sex domestic partners, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled 5-2 on May 7, 2008 in National Pride at Work v. Governor of Michigan (opinion here). Interpreting a state constitutional amendment that was designed to keep same-sex couples from legally marrying, the state supreme court disregarded all the evidence that the voters only intended to affect the state’s marriage law and not domestic partnerships, and put its blessing on the Michigan Christian Citizens Alliance’s bait-and-switch tactics.

The so-called “marriage amendment” to Michigan’s constitution, crafted by the MCCA and its Citizens for the Protection of Marriage committee, was adopted by ballot initiative in 2004. It provides: “To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.” (Curiously, the pre-comma portion of this amendment did not actually appear on the ballot.) This language made Michigan’s marriage limitation amendment significantly broader than many other states’.

Just how much broader was the question in National Pride at Work, and the Michigan Supreme Court majority basically answered, “very.” Justice Markman’s opinion did not focus on the operative consequences of the “domestic partnerships” at issue, which fell dramatically short of those of marriage, which could have allowed the court to read the amendment as the dissent did, as simply precluding government from creating or accepting another state’s marriages between same-sex couples or comparable statuses like civil unions. Instead, the majority focused on the eligibility criteria for the lone benefit at issue (health insurance). Giving health coverage to a domestic partner “recognized” a domestic partnership for some purpose, and so would be unconstitutional if the domestic partnership were a union “similar” to marriage. “Because marriages and domestic partnerships are the only relationships in Michigan defined in termsof both gender and lack of a close blood connection, and, thus, have these core ‘qualities in common,’” the majority reasoned, “the domestic partnerships are unions similar to marriage.”

The interpretation adopted in the opinion of the court is far from preposterous. But in their rush to exemplify judicial restraint, the majority justices found clarity where the dissent saw ambiguity, and took that as their license to ignore considerations of justice as well as the likely intent of the Michigan electorate. Justice Kelly’s dissent recounted the significant evidence that a sizeable majority of the voters of Michigan wished only to keep their state constitution from becoming a tool to open civil marriage to same-sex couples, and in fact favored the extension of health benefits for the same-sex partners of government employees. And the amendment’s sponsor, the MCCA, repeatedly and publicly insisted that the measure wasn’t about benefits, just about the definition of marriage. (The majority questioned why the measure’s proponents’ views should get more weight than the opponents view, which suggested it would have more far-reaching consequences. But that’s how the U.S. Supreme Court has approached the U.S. Constitution, giving more weight to the Federalist Papers than to the Anti-Federalist.) Yet because the language of the measure the voters approved arguably could be read more broadly, forbidding the government to extend any marital benefit to a committed same-sex relationship as such, the majority deemed the “extrinsic” evidence of voter intent to be irrelevant. Caveat voter. (Troublingly, the Michigan “marriage amendment” is not expressly phrased as a restriction on government, instead providing that nothing but one man-one woman marriage “shall be ... recognized.” It is almost unthinkable that the court would hold this to forbid private companies from extending domestic partners benefits, but that reading might appear as “unambiguous” to the majority as its other conclusions seemed to them in National Pride at Work.)

What now? Perhaps governmental institutions such as the city of Kalamazoo, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University, just to name a few, might redefine the eligibility for health benefits for domestic partners. Perhaps they could remove the limitation to same-sex couples, so that a man and an unrelated woman who chose not to marry could get domestic partner health benefits; alternatively, these institutions might continue to limit eligibility to same-sex couples but remove the restriction against certain close relatives forming domestic partnerships, so that two sisters could get DPP health benefits; or maybe they could remove both, so that a brother and sister could be domestic partners, for example. Either or both of these moves would eliminate at least one of the two features–sex limitations, and the exclusion of close relatives–which together made (same-sex) domestic partnerships “similar” to (different-sex) marriages in the majority’s eyes.

Whether that would be enough to make the “recognized” relationships sufficiently unlike marriage to make health benefits permissible is an open question, though. Footnote 14 of the majority opinion listed numerous other respects in which the majority justices regarded marriages and domestic partnership as similar relationships. The majority called attention to the binary nature of the relationship, undertaking obligations of mutual support, the necessity for a contract or agreement for the relationship to exist, minimum age requirements, indefinite durations of the relationship (until “one of the parties takes affirmative action to terminate the relationship”), and for some of the policies the requirement that the domestic partners share a common residence. (The majority’s argument on the last point invoked the possibly oxymoronic notion that common residence “typically defin[es]” the marriage relationship.)

In light of that litany, it could be that the majority would not find providing any benefit to a domestic partner or partnership consistent with the state’s “marriage amendment” unless the eligibility criteria were so loose that they did not connote a relationship at all in any meaningful sense of the word. A policy that allowed an employee to designate any one person whatsoever of her or his choice to be eligible for health insurance coverage might pass muster with the majority precisely because it would not look like it is extending any official respect to the relationship of a committed same-sex couple. If that were to prove right, then the Michigan Supreme Court would have essentially turned a state constitutional amendment “To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage” into a general-purpose repudiation of the dignity of same-sex couples and relationships.

By denying the ability for government to provide any benefit to same-sex domestic partners that is offered to married couples, unless they can get the state constitution re-amended, that also might make Michigan’s “marriage amendment” more vulnerable to constitutional challenge. By increasing the broad sweep of the measure, it would more closely resemble the anti-lesbigay Amendment 2 to Colorado’s constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court held violated the Equal Protection Clause in Romer v. Evans in 1996. Of course, the composition of the Supreme Court today is different from its composition in 1996, with Justice O’Connor replaced by Justice Alito, who so far appears further to the right on the Court than did O’Connor. So the theoretical prospect of a federal constitutional ruling in their favor may be cold comfort to the same-sex couples in Michigan now deprived of health insurance, and thus of equal pay for equal work.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tea Leaves and Sympathy

Divining case outcomes from questions and answers at oral arguments is perilous business in the best of circumstances. In the context of last week’s arguments before the California Supreme Court in the high-profile cases seeking the right to marry for same-sex couples, trying to determine the Justices’ votes based on their questions and comments is probably a fools errand.

The Los Angeles Times, however, concludes: “Three of the court’s seven justices strongly indicated that they would uphold the state law defining marriage as a contract between a man and a woman[.]” Although the Times does not specify whom it meant, my observation of the arguments leads me to suspect the paper is referring to Associate JusticesMarvin Baxter, Ming Chin, and Carol Corrigan. While the Times could perhaps be right about these Justices’ sympathies, I would not be certain.

The strongest of the Times’ calls is probably Justice Chin. He repeatedly pressed attorneys for the plaintiffs to agree that the rights and obligations provided by California to same-sex couples who register as domestic partners are “substantially” equal to those afforded different-sex couples who marry civilly. In responses to arguments that the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage was nonetheless a deprivation of equal protection of the laws, he questioned: “But doesn’t that place rhetoric over reality?” But even Chin asked the attorney for the Proposition 22 Legal Defense Fund about parallels between the treatment of African Americans and the treatment of gay and lesbian persons: “But aren't the problems similar and haven’t the gay and lesbian community members gone through very similar kinds of discrimination?”

Justice Baxter also expressed a fair amount of skepticism. Curiously, though, he pushed a number of attorneys to state their agreement that if Proposition 22 (see Law of Unintended Consequences from March 29) governs not only the out-of-state marriages it was advertised as denying recognition to, but also marriages contracted within California, the legislature would lack the power to let same-sex couples marry while Prop 22 is on the books. Although this might be a sign that he is unsympathetic to the plaintiffs’ narrow interpretation of Prop 22, it could also be a suggestion that the state constitution precludes the legislature from looking out for the equality rights of lesbian and gay Californians in the face of anti-gay statutes adopted via ballot measures, leaving that job to fall elsewhere – perhaps to the Court?

Third, and in a similar vein, Justice Corrigan forced the attorney representing Governor Schwarznegger to agree with her that the issue of whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry couldn’t really be left up to the legislative process per se if the Court concluded that Prop 22 applied not just to out-of-state marriages but also to marriages contracted within California; since the legislature cannot override a ballot initiative, “it might be somewhat more accurate to say you would leave it up to the democratic process.” She repeatedly worried about the point in time at which the plaintiffs believed the refusal to recognize marriages between same-sex couples “became” unconstitutional and how the Court could know whether the people of California were far enough along in their understanding of the evolution of marriage to open that institution to same-sex couples. “That to me is the essential question here; if society is different now how can we say that the majority of Californians have turned the corner, made this change, we now as the body politic are ready?”

But Justice Corrigan’s questions too were far from one-sided. When the attorney for the Proposition 22 Legal Defense Fund attempted to argue that procreation provided a rational basis for the government to exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage, the Justice asked: “Well then should we have marriage laws that say , that say you can’t marry unless you are prepared to have children, or capable of having children, or your marriage doesn’t count until you do have children? I’m puzzled by this somewhat narrow definition of why the state gets involved. Certainly that is a very important aspect of this institution, but it is not the sine qua non, is it?”

Ultimately, trying to discern the Justices sympathies from the questions at last week’s oral argument is probably not much more effective than trying to read tea leaves, and whether she was speaking about individual Justices or the state Supreme Court as a body, Justice Kennard probably summed it up best: “You don’t know where we’re going.”

Friday, February 29, 2008

Law of Unintended Consequences

On Tuesday, March 4, the California Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the historic lawsuits seeking civil recognition of marriages between same-sex couples. Fearing a decision that the California Constitution requires such recognition, opponents of marriage equality are already gathering signatures to place measures on the ballot in November. If approved, these initiatives would amend the state constitution to try to keep marriage heterosexual. But assuming the state Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality, the proponents of one of those measures may be in for a rude awakening. It might turn out that instead of “protecting” marriage, the ballot measure would end up abolishing civil marriage in the state of California.

One of the proposed initiatives being circulated has been styled the “California Marriage Protection Act” by its proponents, who include Gail J. Knight. Were it adopted by the voters, this measure, which I’ll call the Knight Amendment, would add a single sentence to the state Constitution: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

If these words sound familiar, they should. Back in 2000 state Senator Pete Knight, the since deceased husband of Gail, sponsored Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that added to the California Family Code the exact same language. That initiative was advertised as protecting California’s sovereign authority to decide which marriages to recognize from other states. It was approved by the voters by a substantial margin.

So why this new initiative? By amending the Constitution, the backers hope to place the issue of marriage equality beyond the reach of the legislature and the courts. And they hope to preclude the possibility that same-sex couples will be allowed to marry in California as a result of a state Supreme Court decision interpreting the California Constitution.

But the language of the proposed Knight Amendment is most likely inadequate to the task of keeping marriage as a heterosexual-only institution in California. It’s basic shortcoming is that it only puts a limit on which marriages California may treat as valid and recognize, but neither requires that California must treat as valid and recognize any marriages at all nor amends the equality provisions in the state constitution.

So, consider this plausible scenario. Sometime between March 4 and June 2 the California Supreme Court rules that the refusal of the state to recognize marriages between same-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause of the state constitution. In doing so, the Court would necessarily be holding that the robust domestic partnership laws of the state do not suffice to treat same-sex couples equally with different-sex couples. If the Knight Amendment then qualified for the November ballot and the voters approved it, we would be left with the following state of affairs: It would not satisfy the California constitution’s equality guarantee to allow different-sex couples but not same-sex couples to marry; but it would not satisfy the state constitution’s Knight Amendment to allow same-sex couples to marry.

How then could the state satisfy both those constitutional constraints, as would be their duty? By not letting any couples marry. California could abolish “marriage” as such, and perhaps substitute domestic partnership for all couples, instead of just for same-sex couples and elderly different-sex couples as is currently the case. If the only formal relationship status the state offered couples were a domestic partnership, then it would be treating same-sex couples and different-sex couples equally for state constitutional purposes and so not violating the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution. And if the state did not recognize any marriages as “marriages,” it would not violate the proposed Knight Amendment, which does not specify that “marriage between a man and a woman” shall be recognized or valid in California. This measure says “only,” and so would be violated only if the legislature afforded recognition to some marriages in addition to marriages between a man and a woman. True, the measure’s proponents and language seem to expect that marriage would continue to exist, but the Knight Amendment doesn’t expressly require that – unlike some of the other circulating ballot measures, which do specify that marriage shall not be abolished.

I know that may seem like an unsatisfyingly technical interpretation of state constitutional provisions. Moreover, I am one of a group of constitutional law professors in California who filed an amicus brief arguing that a legislative choice to abolish marriage rather than open the civil status to same-sex couples would be infected by anti-lesbigay bias and therefore would violate California's Constitution. Yet the proposed Knight Amendment would change the state Constitution and leave no room for a legislative choice to allow same-sex couples to marry. So the situation would be different if the Knight Amendment were adopted. In that case, the California courts would act within their authority to declare that the best that could be done to satisfy constitutional equality principles under the circumstances would be to eliminate marriage, because marriage could only exist in a discriminatory form under the Knight Amendment.

Abolishing civil marriage is certainly not an intended consequence of the Knight Amendment. But that just underscores the dangers of compromising constitutional principle by writing discrimination into a constitution. If the voters are fair enough to appreciate that, we’ll reject the Knight Amendment and not try to nullify a California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex couples to have the same full recognition of and protection for their marriages as different-sex couples now enjoy.