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Justice for All 

Justice for All 


Even before the landmark May 15 ruling to lift the ban on gay marriage, the seven justices of the California supreme court have proved an unpredictable group

Six of the seven California supreme court justices were appointed by Republican governors, who lauded their conservative credentials.

It's this same judiciary that delivered the legal outcome dreaded by many members of their party: the legalization of same-sex marriage in California and the simultaneous elevation of sexual orientation to the highest class of protection -- making California the first state in the nation to adopt such a strict standard.

"The great triumph of the gay rights movement has been to transform American culture so that acceptance of gay people isn't just confined to the latte-sipping, windsurfing Democrats," says Andrew Koppelman, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University and the author of Same Sex, Different States. "The fact that you can get this result with a court full of Republican appointees is more of a triumph than if it had been a court full of Democrats."

Clearly, some members of the GOP aren't happy about it. The marriage ruling drove former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to decry that his values were under attack by "looney liberals," apparently forgetting that Republicans were largely responsible for it.

Romney and other antigay forces fear that the May 15 decision will affect marriage equality rulings in other parts of the country. And they have reason to worry. According to a study published in December 2007 by the UC Davis Law Review, the California supreme court is the most influential state high court in the nation, with its rulings cited more often in other courts' decisions than those of any other high court.

Case in point: Perez v. Sharp, the landmark interracial-marriage decision cited in the same-sex marriage ruling. State after state overturned interracial-marriage bans after the California supreme court was the first to do so in 1948.

The question remains how history will judge this California supreme court in 60 years. For now, the international spotlight searches for a better understanding of the names forever linked to marriage equality.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George

Appointed to the supreme court by Republican governor Pete Wilson in 1991

Author of the 4-3 majority decision

The son of a French father and Hungarian mother, Chief Justice George says that in recent months, while considering the marriage case, he couldn't help but remember the NO NEGRO signs he saw at age 17 as he traveled through Virginia on his way to college at Princeton University.

After college he flirted with the idea of foreign service, even traveling to Africa, but opted to attend Stanford Law School, where he discovered an affinity for constitutional law. His star rose quickly. At age 28 he argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He went on to work in the California state attorney general's office, where he successfully defeated an appeal by Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan.

He calls the marriage equality ruling one of his three most controversial decisions. As a superior court judge in 1981, George ordered Hillside Strangler defendant Angelo Buono to face murder charges despite a motion by the prosecutor to dismiss the case. Buono was eventually convicted of killing nine Los Angeles-area women.

He became a target of antiabortion activists after another controversial ruling in 1997--the year after he was elevated to chief justice of the state supreme court--when he was seen as the swing vote in a ruling that struck down a law requiring teen girls to obtain parental or judicial consent before terminating a pregnancy.

In the marriage equality ruling, George was once again viewed as the swing vote. "I think George was the biggest question mark," says Brad Sears, executive director of the Charles R. Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. George understands why he's an enigma on the bench. "I approach cases on their merits without regards to pressure or politics," he says.

George, 68, says he has no gay family members but that he does have close friends who are gay. Asked if those friendships informed his thinking, George says, "It's very hard to know. I try to approach everything objectively, but that's part of my experience."

Like Margaret H. Marshall, the chief justice of the Massachusetts supreme judicial court--who wrote her court's majority opinion overturning her own state's same-sex marriage ban in 2003--George was appointed by a Republican governor.

"This case indicates a sort of judicial coming-out for him," says Stephen Barnett, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. "I get the feeling that it was given a great deal of care by the chief justice."

In fact, every word of the decision was run past the three other justices who joined the majority decision. The ruling "establishes many important rules of law," including the designation of sexual orientation as a "suspect class" in California, meaning that any law that is found to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from this point will be constitutionally suspect, on a par with race and gender, a fact the chief justice believes will have "great significance nationally."

"This opinion is by far the most carefully reasoned and carefully crafted of any opinion on the subject--indeed, any writings on the subject--including the writings of presumptively learned professors like myself," says Joseph Grodin, a former California supreme court justice who teaches constitutional law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard

Appointed by Republican governor George Deukmejian in 1989

Joined the majority decision

Like George, Justice Kennard, 67, witnessed racial segregation, but she experienced it in another country. Born in Indonesia to a Dutch-Indonesian father and a Chinese-Indonesian mother, Kennard's father died when she was 1. It wasn't the last heartbreak in her young life.

She and her mother were taken to an internment camp during World War II and then moved to the Netherlands New Guinea (today known as the provinces Papua and West Irian Jaya), where they had to live in a Quonset hut in a racially segregated area. When Kennard was 14, she moved with her mother to the Netherlands. She came to the United States at age 20. By then one of her legs had been amputated because of an infection.

Kennard worked as a secretary until a $5,000 inheritance after her mother's death gave her enough financial freedom to attend classes at Pasadena City College. She later transferred to the University of Southern California, where she finished college in three years while also working part-time. She then earned graduate degrees in law and public administration from USC.

When named in 1989, Kennard became only the second woman to serve on the California supreme court. "I am not a token presence," Kennard said at the time. In 2002, Stephen Barnett observed that her legal opinions have shown "streaks of independence."

Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar

Appointed by Republican governor Pete Wilson in 1994

Joined in the majority decision

Justice Werdegar's legal opinions reflect an independent thinker who looks out for Californians. In 2000 she wrote the majority opinion when the court ruled that an insurance company couldn't deny disability benefits to a man who hadn't disclosed he was HIV-positive when he bought his policy. In 2003 she again wrote the majority opinion when the court upheld the validity of second-parent adoptions, wherein a nonbiological parent is allowed to adopt his or her partner's biological child without terminating the birth parent's rights, a legal arrangement that benefits many gay and lesbian couples and their families.

Werdegar, 72, grew up in San Francisco, largely in foster homes, where her attorney father placed her and her brother following the death of their mother when Werdegar was 4.

She began her study of law at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was first in her class and the first woman elected editor in chief of the California Law Review. Berkeley is also where she met Pete Wilson, who decades later appointed her to the California supreme court.

After marrying, she transferred to and graduated from George Washington University's law school, first in her class again.

Her stellar academic record proved little help once she began looking for jobs, she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002. She now recognizes that she was experiencing discrimination, but that didn't occur to her at the time. "Nobody looks at you in the eye and says, 'We're not taking you because you're a woman,' " she told the Chronicle.

She has three adult sons with her husband, David Werdegar, a family physician who currently serves as president of the nonprofit Institute on Aging and who is former director of the San Francisco Department of Health, where he led the city's response to the AIDS epidemic.

Justice Carlos R. Moreno

Appointed by Democratic governor Gray Davis in 2001

Joined the majority opinion

The son of Mexican immigrants, Justice Moreno's 2001 appointment made him not only the sole Democrat on the state's highest court but its first Latino justice in over a decade.

In addition to raising their own children, he and his wife have custody of a niece who is autistic and developmentally delayed, an experience Moreno says has shown him the challenges of accessing rights and navigating governmental agencies.

"I hope that each of you considers using your hard-earned education and skills to confront the many problems in our contemproary society: problems related to economic equality, crime, discrimination, and social injustice," Moreno told graduates at Thomas Jeffferson School of Law in 2004. "And I want to challenge each of you to become an advocate for eliminating these problems, to do personally what you can to make this a better world for everyone, so that everyone has an opportunity in this great country to fulfull their dreams."

Moreno, now 59, wrote the majority opinion in 2005 when the California supreme court ruled that same-sex partners who raise children together should be treated equally as parents and should expect all the rights and responsibilities of parenthood after they separate. In the opinion he wrote, "We perceive no reason why both parents of a child cannot be women."

Justice Marvin R. Baxter

Appointed by Republican governor George Deukmejian in 1991

Wrote a dissenting opinion

Raised on his family's farm in the small central California town of Fowler, Justice Baxter, 68, is considered by some court observers to be the most conservative judge on the high court.

After earning a bachelor's degree in economics from California State University, Fresno, Baxter became a fellow in public affairs for the nonprofit Coro Foundation before graduating from Hastings College of the Law in 1966.

Before being called to the high court in 1991, Baxter worked as a Fresno County prosecutor and helped make state judicial appointments during his six-year stint as Governor Deukmejian's appointments secretary.

At a hearing in March, Baxter told lawyers that the state has given same-sex couples "virtually equal rights" through its domestic-partnership laws and that the main difference between that institution and marriage lies in name only.

In his dissent, Baxter wrote, "Nothing in our constitution, express or implicit, compels the majority's startling conclusion that the age-old understanding of marriage--an understanding recently confirmed by an initiative law--is no longer valid."

Justice Ming W. Chin

Appointed by Republican governor Pete Wilson in 1996

Joined Baxter's dissenting opinion

Justice Chin, 65, spent much of his childhood on a potato farm in southern Oregon. He was the youngest of eight children of Chinese immigrants who spoke no English.

He first became interested in the law during junior high school, when during the week he lived with a judge whose house was closer to his school. Chin then attended a Catholic boarding school before enrolling in the University of San Francisco.

After earning his law degree Chin served two years as a captain in the U.S. Army, including a year in Vietnam. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star.

His resume boasts of writing landmark decisions about DNA and hate crimes. In the early '90s, as a judge with the first district court of appeal, Chin upset prosecutors when he ruled in separate sexual assault and murder cases that DNA evidence should not be used because of conflicting scientific conclusions about its reliability.

Announcing Chin's appointment to the California supreme court, Gov. Pete Wilson called Chin "engaged, self-assured, and unafraid to take on some of the law's more challenging issues."

Justice Carol A. Corrigan

Appointed by Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005

Wrote a separate dissenting opinion

Growing up the daughter of politically contentious parents taught Justice Corrigan, 59, something about middle ground. "I treasure those childhood memories of people forcefully expressing ideas," the newest member of the California supreme court told a meeting of the Piedmont Republican Women in 2007. "But it was done with a great respect for one another."

That same spirit of conciliation can be seen in Corrigan's dissent. In the opening, the justice, who switched her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 1995, wrote, "In my view, California should allow our gay and lesbian neighbors to call their unions marriage."

Then, citing the 61% voter approval of Proposition 22, the 2000 ballot initiative defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, she continued, "But I, and this court, must acknowledge that the majority of Californians hold a different view, and have explicitly said so by their vote."

For Corrigan, whose childhood taught her the notion that "people can evolve in their thinking," the right to vote on social change is essential to a democracy. As she wrote in the close of her dissent, "If there is to be a new understanding of the meaning of marriage in California, it should develop among people of our state and find its expression in the ballot box."

Such a distinction between personal belief and judicial stance on gay marriage strikes Stephen Barnett as unusual. "It's common enough to say, 'If I were deciding this at the ballot box, I might come out the other way.' It's a little rare to say, 'I would come out the other way' on such a political issue."

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Todd Henneman