SAN FRANCISCO — Famed attorney Ted Olson told a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel Monday that the reason proponents of Proposition 8 have proffered to justify their ban on same-sex marriage is “nonsense.”
That reason, said Olson, reading from a page in the argument brief filed by attorneys for the Yes on 8 coalition which promoted passage of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, was that same-sex marriage “will make children prematurely preoccupied with issues of sexuality.”
“If believed,” said Olson, “that would justify the banning of comic books, television, video games, and even conversations between children.”
And that was not exactly the reason Yes on 8 proffered during their successful 2008 campaign to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Back then, the primary reason, noted Olson, was “protecting children” from the notion that marriage between same-sex couples was ok.
So, what should the court consider as the reason behind denying same-sex couples the right to marry, asked Judge Michael Hawkins.
“Should we look just at the record in the district court,” he asked, or should we “imagine whether there is any conceivable rational basis” to ban gays from marriage?
Olson urged the court not to use its own imagination to figure out whether there might be any conceivable rational reason but to look at the reasons proffered by the Yes on 8 proponents and to determine whether they “make sense” and whether they are “motivated by fear” or a dislike of gay people.
“Protecting our children,” said Olson, “is not a rational basis. It’s based on the idea there’s something wrong with” gay people.
Both Olson and his legal counterpart, Charles Cooper, argued with greater passion and animation during Monday’s argument before the federal appeals court than they did in January and June before U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker.
It was Walker’s ruling in August –that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution — that brought them to the appeals court in San Francisco on Monday.
Unlike at the district court trial, where the U.S. Supreme Court forbid any television or web broadcast, the appeals proceedings were carried live on national television by CSPAN and several California stations. Demonstrators crowded outside the federal building in San Francisco under the watchful eye of federal protection service officers. And interested observers and journalists packed the courtroom and watched broadcasts all over the country.
Any pre-courtroom second-guessing that observers may have harbored over the political leanings of the three judges seemed to be put to rest fairly quickly, as the judges vigorously challenged each side’s arguments on both matters before the court – Yes on 8 and Imperial County’s legal qualification (standing) to appeal and the validity of Walker’s declaration that Proposition 8 violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Judge N. Randy Smith, an alum of the Mormon-run Brigham Young University, came out swinging hard questions for Cooper over Yes on 8’s claim to have legal standing to press the appeal. Then he pitched equally hard questions to Olson’s comrade David Boies, about the “problem” created for the court by the fact that neither the state’s governor nor attorney general appealed the district court decision themselves. Even though neither has the power to veto an initiative, said Smith, they both nullified the initiative by not appealing it.
Boies tried to make the point that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown made their decisions not to appeal after Judge Walker declared the initiative to be unconstitutional.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, widely perceived to be a staunch liberal, seemed to agree with Smith, saying the governor and attorney general’s refusal to appeal the district court decision “does not seem to be consistent” with the state’s initiative system. And should the court find that Yes on 8 and Imperial County both lack the legal qualifications to appeal, the judges said, the appeals court has no cause to rule on the merits of the dispute.
Boies argued that the concern about what the governor and attorney general did was a “different issue” than standing. And on the issue of standing, said Boies, Yes on 8 and Imperial County have no standing to bring the appeal, simply because they can’t meet the standard of demonstrating a real injury from the decision below.
It was not an easy sell. Hawkins expressed frustration that the court might not be able to render a decision on the merits “so it’s clear, in California, who has the right to marry and who doesn’t.”
Yes on 8 attorney Charles Cooper had argued that, because the California Supreme Court had, in an earlier, related court proceeding given Yes on 8 the right to intervene in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case to defend Proposition 8, it intended to convey standing, too. By the end of the first hour of the proceeding –which was devoted to standing—the panel seemed inclined to ask the California Supreme Court to certify whether it intended Yes on 8 to have standing.
The panel seemed equally uncomfortable with the effort by a deputy clerk of Imperial County, Isabella Vargas, to seek standing to appeal Walker’s decision. The judges, particularly Hawkins, pointedly and repeatedly asked why Imperial County’s deputy clerk was seeking the status, and no explanation was given as to why the county clerk did not.
Robert Tyler, an attorney with a religious advocacy legal firm representing Vargas and Imperial County pro bono, evaded the answer to that question both in and out of the courtroom. At a press conference following arguments, he claimed the answer was a matter of attorney-client privilege.
The three judges were equally tough in questions about the merits of Judge Walker’s decision. As Cooper attempted to read from his prepared statement, Judge Hawkins interrupted almost immediately to ask him whether voters have the right to reinstitute segregation in public schools.
“No,” said Cooper.
“Why not?” asked Hawkins.
“Because it would be inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution,” said Cooper.
“As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court,” interjected Hawkins.
“Yes,” conceded Cooper.
But in 1870, the U.S. Supreme Court probably would not have interpreted the constitution to forbid segregation, would it? asked Hawkins.
Cooper conceded that was probably true.
“Well, how is this different?” asked Hawkins.
Judge Smith challenged Cooper using the Loving v. Virginia ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that said states could not prohibit interracial marriage. He did so by noting that Cooper was arguing that the Supreme Court had already ruled on the right of states to proscribe same-sex marriage in Baker v. Nelson. The high court, in 1972, dismissed the appeal of a gay couple who had sought a marriage license in Minnesota.
Dismissing an appeal has more significance than simply refusing to hear an appeal. But, in dismissing the Baker appeal, the high court explained it was doing so because there was no “substantial federal question” presented by the case. There is dispute within legal circles as to whether that dismissal means anything today. But Cooper, and others, have tried to make a case that the Baker action is precedent, and that it governs attempts by other states to ban same-sex marriages.
If Baker was precedent, said Smith, then why couldn’t states ban interracial marriage, too?
Cooper had to concede the right of states to decide who can marry is “not an absolute right” and that their right to do so “is limited by the restrictions of the U.S. Constitution.”
When Cooper tried to argue that society has a rational interest in the creation of children and in promoting responsible procreation to ensure that children are adequately cared for, Judge Reinhardt suggested that might be a “good argument for prohibiting divorce.”
Judge Smith jumped in to challenge Cooper on this point, too. He noted that California domestic partnership laws provide same-sex couples with all the same benefits and rights to marriage, including those involving child-rearing. What is the rational reason for denying same-sex couples the designation of the word marriage, he wondered.
Judge Hawkins challenged Cooper to explain how California’s same-sex marriage ban is different from Colorado’s Amendment 2 which said no law could prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Supreme Court struck down Amendment 2 in Romer v. Evans, saying that the only reason for the law was animus against gay people and that laws may not be justified by animus.
Cooper argued that Amendment 2 had been a “sweeping” denial of protections to gay people, in banking, employment, housing, commercial transactions, and many other areas of life. Proposition 8, he said, was focused just on marriage. And, in marriage, said Cooper, society had an interest to protect unrelated to animus against gay people, and that interest is promoting responsible procreation.
Therese Stewart, the openly gay Chief Deputy City Attorney for San Francisco, tackled that argument head-on, by noting that same-sex couples “do procreate –not in same way [as heterosexual couples], but they do procreate.”
Gay legal activists seemed pleased with how the arguments went Monday.
Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marriage Project, said that, overall, he thinks “it looks promising, both on standing and on the merits.”
Shannon Minter, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, agreed, saying he was especially encouraged that “at least two of the judges seemed highly critical of Charles Cooper’s claim on behalf of the proponents that Prop 8 could be justified based on arguments relating to procreation.” And Ted Olson, he said, “was particularly eloquent and urged the Court to reach the broad question of whether same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.”
Jenny Pizer, head of Lambda Legal Defense’s Marriage Project, said she wouldn’t be surprised if the panel’s eventual ruling includes “multiple decisions” on how they reached the same outcome “with different reasonings.”
“And if they conclude Prop 8 is invalid while disagreeing about the details of why,” said Pizer, “that may be just fine.”
The panel is expected to render its decision on both the standing issue and the constitutionality of Proposition 8 within a few months. Boies speculated during a post-argument press conference that the earliest the panel would likely render a decision is early next year and the earliest the case might be heard by the Supreme Court –during its almost inevitable appeal—would be 2012.