December 6, 2010
Thanks to P8TT legal analyst and Calitics publisher Brian Leubitz for chiming in his legal analysis as the trial proceeded during today’s liveblog thread, and for sharing with us his longer take here.
By Brian Leubitz
As I do this sort of flash analysis, I want to start with a big, broad, general point here. Namely, while you can see possible avenues and ideas that may filter into a decision, focusing on “winners” is a sucker’s bet. Perhaps, if you take all the questioning as a whole, you end up with some tougher grilling of the opponents, but judges like to play devil’s advocate. Sometimes you can get a read, and sometimes you can’t. Also, I haven’t really had the time to fully analyze each aspect of these arguments, so forgive me if I misread, or am just plain wrong, in places.
So let’s take a look at the meat of the issues, and see what we learned today.
The attorney for Imperial County, and Isabel Vargas, the deputy clerk of the county, took a real beating in the courtroom. Robert Tyler, of the Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a right wing anti-equality non-profit, came to the podium in front of a skeptical panel.
First, the court had an issue with the fact that the actual clerk of Imperial County was not a party to the attempt to intervene. Rather, Mr. Tyler represented Ms. Vargas, who only really has authority to act as an agent of her elected boss, Dolores Provencio. Erwin Chemerinksy, the Dean of UC-Irvine’s new law school, had this to say about the oral arguments:
If Imperial County can intervene and defend Prop. 8, then there would be no need for supporters of Prop. 8 to have standing to do so. But both Judge Hawkins and Judge Smith seem very skeptical of the authority of the deputy clerk to seek to intervene on behalf of Imperial County. Both stressed that the clerk is not seeking to intervene and a deputy clerk lacks the authority to do this. Judge Smith also has raised the issue of whether the clerk is a state officer or a local officer. If the clerk is a state officer, then the clerk would not have the authority to represent the state — only the governor and the attorney general can do so. The clear sense so far is that all three judges are very skeptical of allowing Imperial County to intervene. (LA Times)
Of course, the question of Imperial County really only becomes important if the Court decides that the proponents do not have standing. But the Imperial County claim looks like something of a long shot at this point, or at least not something you would want to be pinning your hopes on.
Standing of the Proponents
This is where some unexpected wrinkles came up in the oral arguments. Namely the possibility of the “certification” of a question to the Supreme Court of California. But let’s back up a step.
In the questioning of David Boies, Judge Smith (the lone Republican appointee on the panel), asked him whether the failure to defend Prop 8 was a “nullification” of the efforts of the proponents and the choice of the voters in a way that was akin to a “veto” by the elected state leaders. Of course, a veto of an initiative is not allowed under the Constitution. So, conflict? (Here’s where I’m hearing an ominous duh-duh-duh in my head.)
Well, not really. Boies points out that the California Supreme Court was in fact asked whether Brown and/or Schwarzenegger were legally obligated to defend Prop 8. And, in fact they were asked by the “Pacific Justice Institute” exactly that question. PJI was first denied by the the 3rd District, and later by the California Supreme Court.
There is a process for appellate courts to ask state courts a question about state law, called certification. Basically, they “certify” a question, and the state supreme court can answer it. It would delay the process substantially, and given the quick dismissal of the PJI attempt to get Brown to appeal, doesn’t really seem either necessary or worthwhile. Essentially, the state supreme court has spoken on this issue by failing to force the appeal.
However, if the panel really felt strongly on this subject, they could go to the State Supreme Court. We would probably hear about that fairly soon. But, really, don’t expect that.
Returning to the main issue, the ball game was essentially played on the field of Arizonans for Official English, with various cases modifying it. The court was essentially trying to figure out if there a) had ever been a case where a proponent was deemed to have standing and b) if this should be that first case.
Charles Cooper, the attorney for ProtectMarriage.com, eventually relented that there was not such a case. However, he then went on to say that the Strauss decision, where the state Supreme Court upheld Prop 8, was an example of just that in the state court. There, Brown and Schwarzenegger once again refused to defend, but the proponents had standing as defined by the California Supreme Court.
Now, Article III standing isn’t the same thing as California standing, there is different jurisprudence on that. However, the admission that there was no case makes the proponents request a question of novel law. Now, that’s not to say that they can’t win on this question, but it does underscore the big question mark on this issue.
After all the process of the first hour (plus 15 minutes), it was on to the meat and potatoes of the due process and equal protection claims. One interesting initial point was that both sides seemingly dropped the question of intermediate or strict scrutiny. Ted Olson briefly mentioned that he think that it could apply, but the substance of his remarks all stuck to the question of whether there was a “rational basis” for Prop 8.
I think there were a couple of specific points that attracted most of the attention, the Romer case, and this question of the “word”.
Judge Smith focused a couple times on whether the State of California was in a worse position for having passed Prop 8 because it has given all of the same rights and privileges under the auspices of the domestic partnership statute. In other words, if we are only fighting over a word, and no substantive differences at the state level, aren’t we essentially creating a subclass? And roughly transcribed, here’s what Cooper said:
Cooper: The word is the institution. If you redefine the word, you change the institution.
I actually think this was a big moment of the oral argument. It said that yes, the anti-equality forces were there only to “put down” gays and lesbians, or as San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart said (again, this is my rough notes here):
If the word is the institution, then the argument is just that gays and lesbians would “stain” the institution. The fact that Prop 8 is symbolic, it makes the insult obvious. This is classification for its own sake, and it violates the equal protection clause. Taking these components together, it infers animus.
If we only passed Prop 8 to show that same-sex couples aren’t as good, or as worthy as other couples, then isn’t the equal protection argument plain to see? It reveals the naked schoolyard taunting aspect of Prop 8. Nah-nanny-boo boo, you aren’t as good as me. And frankly, nanny-boo-boo isn’t a valid use of state authority.
Romer v Evans struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2, which barred local governments from recognizing gays and lesbians as a protected class, as the City of Denver had done earlier in the decade. In the decision, Justice Kennedy said that the law denied LGBT Coloradans the protection of the law in an impermissible way. It was so broad as to “confound” judicial review and that Amendment 2 was raised of animus. Or as Kennedy put it:
[L]aws of the kind now before us raise the inevitable inference that the disadvantage imposed is born of animosity toward the class of persons affected…
Cooper argued that the legislation at issue in Romer was so broad that it couldn’t be constitutional, whereas this was just one issue, the word “marriage.” Judge Hawkins pressed Cooper, saying that the removal of rights, especially this right, put it back in the Romer territory. This issue of the removal of rights looks likely to come up in the decision, if the court does reach past the question of standing. The question just seems too large, and too conflicting with prior law, to not be a major part of the decision. And generally, that’s a good thing for equality.
So, can we predict a winner from the argument today? Well, I go back to my initial statement, it is hard to tell from an oral argument alone. If you really pushed me, I would say that the plaintiffs would be the favorite at this point. The duel questions of standing and whether the court could really find a rational basis hang in the air. And I’m not sure that Cooper satisfactorily answered either.