Friday, July 12, 2013

Prop 8 Proponents Ask California Supreme Court to Stop Marriages

“If I make improper suggestions

Desperate but not serious”

Here they go again:  Bypassing the lower state courts, the Proponents of Proposition 8 have filed a petition for a writ of mandate (here) asking the California Supreme Court to order the clerks of the counties in California to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  It seems very unlikely that the California Supreme Court would exercise its discretion to take up this matter and then rule in favor of the proponents, especially since those proponents are or come very close to asking the state court to interfere with a federal court injunction.

In a nutshell, the proponents are arguing first that Prop 8 is actually constitutional, that federal judge Vaughn Walker was mistaken in ruling to the contrary after the trial on Prop 8, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has not disagreed with them because it dismissed the Prop 8 appeal on standing grounds rather than reaching the constitutional equal protection or right to marry issues.  Second, they argue that county clerks have a ministerial duty to enforce the marriage laws of the state, which in their view include Prop 8, and that by ordering them not to, State Registrar Tony Agurto, following the legal conclusion of Attorney General Kamala Harris, violated the provision of the California Constitution that bars administrative agencies and at least some governmental executive officials from refusing to enforce state laws on the ground that they’re unconstitutional unless an appellate court has made a determination that the state law at issue is indeed unconstitutional.  (Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit did “make a determination” that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, the proponents of the measure argue that since the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that decision, it cannot satisfy this state constitutional clause.)  And, third, they argue that the issue is so important, implicating as it does (in their view) the efficacy of the state initiative process, that these supposedly lawless same-sex marriages must be stopped immediately.

Unless a majority of the California Supreme Court Justices are extremely peeved that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Prop 8 proponents lacked federal court standing, this latest effort to revive Prop 8 (or at least to demonstrate to constituents the proponents’ need for funds to keep up their committed fight for the measure’s legal life) is unlikely to go anywhere.  It’s certainly unlikely to result in an immediate order against issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  However important the rule of law and the California initiative process may be, the petition contains no explanation for why those cannot be vindicated through an orderly judicial process that resolves Prop 8’s constitutionality and an order at the end of it to resume enforcing Prop 8, if that judicial process concludes it really is constitutional.

Moreover, this petition dangerously veers into or close to asserting the power of state courts to interfere with federal court injunctions.  Indeed, the proponents’ arguments make claims about the federal court’s supposed lack of authority of have bound certain defendants in certain ways.  Given our system of federalism, and specifically of the supremacy of federal law, state courts just are not allowed to disregard or narrow federal court orders (as was made clear to the chagrin of the segregationist South in the mid twentieth century).  Even if they were right that the state Attorney General erred in concluding that county clerks are within the terms of the federal court injunction against Prop 8 as employees controlled or supervised by the state defendants, the proper route to clarify the scope of a federal court injunction is to return to that federal court and ask it to rule.

Finally, in what is hard to believe is a good faith mistake, the proponents do not acknowledge that the City and County of San Francisco was allowed by Judge Walker to intervene as a plaintiff challenging Prop 8.  Instead, they refer repeatedly to “the four plaintiffs,” meaning the two same-sex couples who were plaintiffs.  They then argue that because those couples are now married, the federal injunction cannot even apply to Los Angeles and Alameda Counties, where those couples reside.  (Again, that’s a question about the proper scope of the federal injunction that the state courts cannot do anything about.)  But since San Francisco was a prevailing plaintiff, and the federal court injunction prohibits Prop 8 from being enforced against it, at a very minimum it can continue to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even if no other county could (which I do not believe to be the case).  Because Californians can get a marriage license in any county regardless of their residence or where the wedding will be held in the state, the Prop 8 proponents desperate, last-ditch (one hopes!) petition here cannot stop marriage equality in the state.  The futility of their petition is, thus, one more reason why the California Supreme Court is likely to deny it.  For the sake of those same-sex couples planning marriages and weddings, I hope the court does so quickly.

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