Judges that will hear Prop 8 case called ‘a very good panel’ for gay marriage supporters

Backers of anti-gay California initiative say development means case even more likely to be decided by Supreme Court

LISA LEFF | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Two judges appointed by Democratic presidents and one named by a Republican will decide if a San Francisco trial judge improperly struck down California’s same-sex marriage ban, a federal appeals court announced Monday, Nov. 29.

Judges Michael Hawkins, Stephen Reinhardt and N. Randy Smith of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals were randomly assigned the landmark case from the court’s pool of 27 active judges.

The panel is scheduled to hear arguments next week over the constitutionality of the voter-approved ban, known as Proposition 8.

Reinhardt, a 79-year-old Los Angeles resident, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and is regarded as one of the 9th Circuit’s most liberal jurists. Hawkins, a 65-year-old Arizonan, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Smith, 61, was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007 and keeps his chambers in his native Idaho.

Proposition 8′s sponsors are appealing Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s August ruling that overturned the 2008 law as a violation of gay and lesbian Californians’ civil rights. They argue that Walker ignored a U.S. Supreme Court precedent from 1973 that held the U.S. Constitution does not recognize marriage rights for gays.

Observers predicted the panel’s makeup makes it less likely Walker would be reversed.

“Anyone who follows the 9th Circuit closely would say that this a very good panel for the Prop 8 opponents and a very bad panel for its defenders,” said Arthur Hellman, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor who is an expert on the court. “I expect a 2-1 decision, with Reinhardt and Hawkins outvoting Smith.”

Proposition 8′s supporters had the same interpretation, and reiterated their plan to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

“Judge Reinhardt’s inclusion on the 9th Circuit panel adds more weight to what the Prop 8 Legal Defense team has said since this case was filed in federal court: We fully expect that it will ultimately be decided by the highest court in the land,” the California Family Council, which was part of the coalition of religious and conservative groups that backed the 2008 measure, said in a statement.

When they meet in San Francisco on Dec. 6, one of the issues the judges will consider is whether the ban’s backers had the authority to bring the appeal after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown decided not to challenge the lower court ruling.

Officials from conservative Imperial County have asked the 9th Circuit to allow them to represent the state’s interests if the panel decides that Proposition 8′s sponsors lack standing.

—  John Wright