Proposition 8 Overturned
In a highly anticipated decision with potentially far-reaching implications in the national battle over marriage equality, a federal judge has struck down California's Proposition 8.
U.S. district judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled that the ballot measure violated both equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution in a 136-page opinion released Wednesday, nearly seven months after an unprecedented trial over marriage rights began in his San Francisco courtroom.
"Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license," Walker wrote in a decision deemed by many legal observers to be both straightforward and breathtaking in its scope.
"Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional," Walker wrote.
Walker issued a temporary stay of the judgment, however, pending a motion by Prop. 8 proponents, who appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Thursday. In a letter to Walker prior to the decision, attorney Charles J. Cooper wrote that another "window of same-sex marriage in California would cause irreparable harm."
Walker has asked for arguments from both sides regarding a stay of the decision to be submitted to the court by Friday but has not indicated whether there will be a hearing on the matter. Should the district judge deny a stay, it's likely that Prop. 8 proponents will seek one from the Ninth Circuit.
Lead attorneys Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, who brought the case last year on behalf of a gay male couple in Burbank and a lesbian couple in Berkeley who were denied marriage licenses, spoke shortly afterward outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco with Chad Griffin, founder and copresident of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which organized and helped finance of the suit.
Walker's decision "increases the stability and value of marriage to our society," Olson said outside the courthouse after the ruling was released. The state has no legitimate interest "in contributing to discriminate against any of its citizens," he said. "This is a victory for the American people – it’s a victory for our justice system."
Whether or not the decision is stayed, attorney Ted Boutrous, who argued the case for marriage equality alongside Olson and Boies, told The Advocate, "we're going to push for expedited treatment of this appeal, because every day that goes by, the rights of thousands of people are being injured—especially now that we have this powerful, powerful ruling."
The decision was released on the court website shortly after 2 p.m., though a leaked version went viral on the Internet shortly after 1 p.m. Pacific time. A link to the decision is available here.
On Wednesday the legal team and plaintiffs Kristin Perry, Sandy Stier, Paul Katami, and Jeff Zarrillo spoke to a large crowd at a West Hollywood park attended by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and country singer Chely Wright. "With this decision, our system worked," Perry told the crowd. "Our courts are supposed to protect our constitutional rights. Today, they did."
Legal observers had widely expected Walker to rule Prop. 8 unconstitutional, though an ultimate favorable decision by the U.S. Supreme Court remains uncertain, should the court eventually take the case.
National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter called the ruling "the most comprehensive, detailed decision addressing the constitutional rights of same-sex couples to affirmative recognition and support ever to be issued by a federal court."
Walker's decision addressed only the legal situation in California, where same-sex couples no longer have the right to marry and are instead offered domestic partnerships, which "do not provide the same social meaning as marriage," Walker wrote.
However, Minter said aspects of Walker's decision could apply to other state laws that bar same-sex couples from marrying or otherwise discriminate against LGBT people.
Tobias Wolff, a constitutional law professor who also advised the Obama '08 campaign on LGBT issues, called the decision "thrilling to read."
Wolff noted that Walker said from the very beginning of the trial that his main charge as a district court judge was to adjudicate the facts.
"The most important thing about this ruling is the extensive analysis that the judge offers of the facts that were put on trial," he said of the 80 findings of fact Walker made in his decision. "The judge concluded in a rather prosaic evidentiary ruling that the other side had not offered any legitimate testimony in support of their case."
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In his decision, Walker systematically dismantled arguments made by Prop. 8 proponents during the 2008 campaign and in court. Among his findings based on trial evidence:
-Prop. 8 perpetuates the stereotype that gays and lesbians are incapable of forming long-term loving relationships
-Children do not need to be raised by a male parent and a female parent to be well-adjusted
-No evidence supports stereotypes that gay men and lesbians are disease vectors ... or child molesters who recruit young children into homosexuality
-Stereotypes and misinformation have resulted in social and legal disadvantages for gays and lesbians
"The purported reasons for denying same-sex couples the right to marry today echo the same ugly myths deployed against us for generations," said Lambda Legal marriage project director Jennifer Pizer.
"By refuting each of them and naming antigay bias for the rank prejudice it is, today's decision is an important legal step forward, confirming yet again that constitutional guarantees of liberty and equality must require equal treatment under a state's marriage laws," Pizer said.
Wednesday's court win against Prop. 8 was a stunning and emotional victory for the marriage equality movement, in stark contrast to staggering losses in multiple states over the past year. Last month Hawaii governor Linda Lingle vetoed a civil unions bill, following legislative defeats for gay marriage in both New York and New Jersey last winter. Attorneys with Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit last week in Hawaii, challenging the state's inadequate patchwork of protections for same-sex couples.
But the July loss in Hawaii was followed two days later by a major court victory in Boston, where a federal judge ruled in two separate cases that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Largely overshadowed by the Prop. 8 suit, the two DOMA suits are considered narrower in scope yet also highly significant, targeting one portion of the 1996 law that limits the definition of marriage to a union of one man and one woman for all federal purposes.
Attorneys challenging Prop. 8 have made broader claims regarding the fundamental right to marriage and the unconstitutional nature of laws and ballot measures that deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. In court they argued that Prop. 8 violates both the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and they frequently referred to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that struck down state laws banning interracial marriage.
The Perry lawsuit was met with initial concern from many LGBT legal groups that had advocated an incremental, state-by-state approach as vital to ultimate victory before the Supreme Court. Brought by Olson and Boies, two former adversaries in the 2000 Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore with no prior experience litigating gay rights cases, the case continues to be seen by some as a risky and premature move for marriage equality on the federal level.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to defend Prop. 8 in court; antigay groups led by ProtectMarriage.com and the Alliance Defense Fund subsequently intervened to fight the legal challenge.
During the three-week bench trial in January, Olson and Boies sought to refute assertions regarding the potential negative consequences of marriage equality by putting on the stand some of the nation's preeminent experts on gay culture, history, and politics. Expert testimony included evidence that same-sex couples marrying has no detrimental effect on heterosexuals marrying and raising children, and that the children of gay and lesbian couples fare better when their parents are able to marry.
Attorneys defending the ballot measure argued that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples was vital to maintaining “responsible procreation” in society. The state, lead attorney Cooper said, had a vested interest in “channeling” natural human impulses into the formation of enduring relationships suitable for raising children.
"At trial we built a solid record to show that marriage ... has been defined in both law and language as a union between a man and a woman and acts as the predominate relationship in which to create and support children," ProtectMarriage.com general counsel Andy Pugno said in a Wednesday statement.
But in his decision Walker slammed Prop. 8 proponents' argument that children were better off when raised by opposite-sex parents.
"Children raised by gay or lesbian parents are as likely as children raised by heterosexual parents to be healthy, successful and well-adjusted," Walker wrote. "The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology."
Richard Socarides, a New York lawyer and former LGBT adviser to President Bill Clinton, marveled at the irrefutable nature of the win for equality advocates.
"I was struck that it was such a total victory — that they won on every point. And I was struck by how sweeping the ruling was and how complete in every respect."
To contribute to the American Foundation for Equal Rights legal fund as the case moves forward, click here.