August 17, 2010
by Adam Bink
In last night’s thread, Eden posted some thoughts from UPenn law professor Tobias Wolff:
A victory in this appeal on the jurisdiction / standing issue would be phenomenal. Although the principles established in Judge Walker’s ruling would only result in the striking down of Proposition 8, rather than the establishment of marriage equality nationwide, dismissal of the appeal would eliminate the risk associated with bringing these claims before the Supreme Court of the United States — the most conservative Court that we have had in the last fifty years, in many respects — and Judge Walker’s devastating analysis of the factual record and the utter lack of evidence supporting any reason for excluding same-sex couples from marriage would remain on the books and be available for us to cite in all our future efforts at litigation and legislative reform.
Over the last few weeks an interesting debate has emerged over whether equality advocates should hope that the case is not struck down over the standing issue, so as for the case to make it to the Supreme Court where it has a chance of playing a role in enacting equality for the entire nation, rather than just California.
What I’ve noticed is that the debate is very similar to the discussion around the lawsuit challenging DOMA in Massachusetts. I examined these arguments in depth in a piece at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, titled “The question of whether to hope for a DOJ appeal“. For those unfamiliar with the case, some background from the lede:
The strategy and legal question that has been buzzing around LGBT circles, and articulated here at OpenLeft by Mark Matson, is whether or not advocates for equality between same-sex and opposite-sex couples should actually be hoping for the Department of Justice to appeal the case to the First Circuit and then the Supreme Court. The reason is because these cases are limited in their effects to the married, same-sex couples residing within Massachusetts borders only, while if the case is appealed and won at the First Circuit, same-sex couples in other states (most notably New Hampshire, which has legalized same-sex marriage, but also a few other states and Puerto Rico) would benefit. And of course, if won at the Supreme Court, it would affect the country.
Very interesting similarities to our debate around a Prop 8 appeal. In the end for the DOMA lawsuit, it appears likely that one way or another, the case will end up before the Supreme Court. I wrote:
Aside from it being unlikely for one of the three situations to come true, it appears unlikely that the SCOTUS will not hear this case, sooner or later.
I say that for three reasons Gary [Buseck, the Legal Director at Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders] and I worked through. One, it’s not likely that one by one, a lawsuit or lawsuits will work its way through each of this country’s twelve circuits (not including the Federal Circuit, which only does patent law) over the next few decades, and every single time the federal government declines to appeal. Nor is it likely that if the government does, that every single time the SCOTUS declines to hear them. If we lose at one, it’s also not likely to happen for a second reason, which Gary pointed out to me- where there is a conflict in circuit court rulings- e.g., we win at the 1st Circuit but the 9th Circuit decides differently- that is often where the SCOTUS decides to step in. A third reason it’s also not likely is because if our side prevails, I’m told it’s more likely the SCOTUS will hear the case than if we lose.
So, when it comes to advocates for equality, there are definitely downsides to the government not appealing. On the other hand, this seems to be a road that has an end at the SCOTUS anyway, sooner or later. With that point of view, what would matter in determining whether or not to hope for appeal is your view of how friendly the SCOTUS is, now versus in the future. Which may be the better question to ask.
In the Prop 8 case, this question- the likelihood of the SCOTUS coming down on the side of equality- is, too, burning on all of our minds, and has been since the Olson/Boies lawsuit was announced. “Do you really think there are 5 votes on the Supreme Court for this?” is the most common question I hear asked of the two attorneys in interviews.
But the difference in the case here, as I see it, is that there is far more good news if the Prop 8 case is struck down on standing. I am always a little surprised when friends and colleagues lament that the ruling would be limited to California, the 8th largest economy in the world- large enough to be a country on its own, large enough to be bigger than some entire countries that already have legalized the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. Having thousands of more same-sex couples marry if the case is struck down on standing alone should not be a disappointment. It will help create a favorable environment to a future court ruling. It will help move public opinion and create visibility. It could (potentially) mean saving tens of millions of dollars and countless other resources from a future Prop 8 repeal effort that could be channeled towards advancing equality in other states, like Oregon. I also believe it will help us in efforts to repeal the anti-equality constitutional amendment in Oregon in 2012. And of course, it will make many more same-sex couples a great deal more equal. It is no small deal.
So while I agree with Tobias that a victory on the standing issue would be phenomenal, it is less out of fear or caution regarding the composition of the Supreme Court. I believe, as Olson and Boies do, that we can win there, and that too would be incredible. It is out of a hope for fairness to come sooner rather than later to same-sex couples, and for the sake and usefulness of advancing our movement down the road via other avenues that could even further build our chances of winning at the Supreme Court one day.