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.”

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