Court won’t release videos from Prop 8 trial

LISA LEFF | Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — A federal appeals court refused Thursday to unseal video recordings of a landmark trial on the constitutionality of California’s same-sex marriage ban but said it needed more time to decide if a lower court judge properly struck down the voter-approved ban.

Siding with the ban’s supporters, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled the public doesn’t have the right to see the footage that former Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker had produced with the caveat it would be used only by him to help him reach a verdict.

Chief Judge Walker “promised the litigants that the conditions under which the recording was maintained would not change — that there was no possibility that the recording would be broadcast to the public in the future,” a three-judge 9th Circuit panel said in a unanimous opinion.

The 2010 trial over which Walker presided lasted 13 days and was the first in a federal court to examine if prohibiting gay couples from marrying violates their constitutional rights.

It was open to the public and received widespread media coverage, so the recordings would not have revealed any new evidence or testimony.

Walker, who has since retired and revealed he is in a long-term relationship with another man, originally wanted to broadcast the trial in other federal courthouses and on YouTube.

The U.S. Supreme Court forbade him from moving forward with that plan after the ban’s sponsors argued that distributing trial footage could subject their witnesses to harassment.

At the time, the 9th Circuit did not allow the federal courts within its jurisdiction to televise trials. The appeals court since has adopted rules that would permit trials to be broadcast under limited conditions.

“The 9th Circuit correctly ruled that when a trial judge makes a solemn promise, as Judge Walker did by assuring the parties that the trial video would not be publicly released, the judiciary must not be allowed to renege on its pledge,” said Austin Nimocks, a lawyer for the coalition of religious conservative groups that sponsored Proposition 8,

“To rule otherwise would severely undermine the public’s confidence in the federal courts by breaching the bond of trust between the people and their justice system,” he said.

The 9th Circuit has said it wanted to resolve the public release of the trial videos before it addresses the more substantive issue of whether Walker correctly struck down Proposition 8 on federal constitutional grounds.

The appeals court panel heard arguments about that a year ago, but does not face a deadline for making a decision.

A coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, and lawyers for the two couples who successfully sued to overturn Proposition 8 in Walker’s court have petitioned to have the Proposition 8 trial recordings made public on First Amendment grounds. The group maintained the ban’s backers have not proven their witnesses would be harmed if people got to see what they said under oath.

Walker’s successor as the chief U.S. district judge in Northern California, James Ware, agreed in September and planned to unseal the videos. In its Thursday ruling, the three-judge 9th Circuit panel said Ware had erred and ordered the recordings kept under seal.

“The integrity of our judicial system depends in no small part on the ability of litigants and members of the public to rely on a judge’s word. The record compels the finding that the trial judge’s representations to the parties were solemn commitments,” the appeals court said.

The panel also refused to return to Walker a copy of the recordings that Ware gave his colleague upon his retirement last year. Walker had used snippets of footage in public talks about the value of broadcasting court proceedings, but gave it back while the skirmish over the videos played out.

Gay rights advocates said they wanted to use the recordings to try to puncture political arguments used by opponents of same-sex marriage, but that Thursday’s decision would not be an insurmountable obstacle to that goal.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who serves on the board of the group funding the effort to overturn Proposition 8 in court, has written a play called 8 based on the trial transcript and interviews from the 2010 court fight that will premiere in Los Angeles next month with a cast that includes George Clooney, Jamie Lee Curtis and Martin Sheen.

“The fact that (the marriage ban’s backers) have gone this distance to keep the tapes from the American public, what it has done and increasingly will do, is inspire efforts that we will help lead to make sure the public knows what happened in the courtroom,” said Chad Griffin, president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights.

—  John Wright

Prop 8 supporters still want judge disqualified

Lawyers file brief claiming Vaughn Walker’s ruling striking down gay marriage ban should be invalidated because he is gay and in a relationship with a man

Walker.Vaughn

JUDGING THE JUDGE | In this July 8, 2009 file photo, Judge Vaughn Walker is seen in his chambers at the Phillip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, Calif. Lawyers for the sponsors of California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban have filed briefs with the appeals court asking that Walker’s ruling striking down Prop 8 be invalidated because he is gay. (San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Chinn/Associated Press)

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press
editor@dallasvoice.com

SAN FRANCISCO — The sponsors of California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban have asked a federal court to invalidate the ruling of the federal judge who struck it down, saying the judge should be disqualified because he did not divulge he was in a long-term relationship with another man.

Lawyers for the Proposition 8’s backers filed their open brief on the issue late Monday, Oct. 3, with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. They claim that another federal judge erred when he concluded U.S. Chief Judge Vaughn Walker’s relationship status was irrelevant to Walker’s ability to fairly preside over the trial on the measure’s constitutionality.

In their brief, they argue that Walker’s impartiality can be questioned because he is “similarly situated” to the plaintiffs who sued to overturn Proposition 8, two same-sex couples in established relationships. They also said that while Walker has not indicated if he and his partner wish to marry, research presented as evidence in the trial found that two-thirds of unmarried same-sex couples would tie the knot if they could.

“Given that Judge Walker was in a long-term, same-sex relationship throughout this case (and
for many years before the case commenced), he was, in Plaintiffs’ own words, ‘similarly situated to (Plaintiffs) for purposes of marriage,’” the lawyers wrote. “And it is entirely possible — indeed, it is quite likely, according to Plaintiffs themselves — that Judge Walker had an interest in marrying his partner and therefore stood in precisely the same shoes as the Plaintiffs before him.”

Walker’s successor, Chief Judge James Ware, rejected similar arguments in late August, after the coalition of religious conservative groups that qualified Proposition 8 for the November 2008 ballot made the first attempt in the nation to disqualify a sitting judge based on sexual orientation.

Ware said the presumption that Walker could not be unbiased was “as warrantless as the presumption that a female judge is incapable of being impartial in a case in which women seek legal relief.”

In an apparent response, the coalition’s attorneys wrote that they were not suggesting that gay or lesbian judges could never preside over cases involving gay rights questions.

“We know of no reason to believe, for example, that Judge Walker would have any personal interest in the outcome of litigation over, say, the constitutionality of the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” they said. “Nor would there be any issue with a gay or lesbian judge hearing this case so long as a reasonable person, knowing all of the relevant facts and circumstances, would not have reason to believe that the judge has a current personal interest in marrying.”

The 9th Circuit already is reviewing whether Walker properly concluded the ban violates the rights of gay Californians and if Proposition 8’s sponsors were eligible to appeal his ruling once the state’s attorney general and governor declined to challenge it. A decision could come down at any time.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Judge’s gay relationship at issue in Prop 8 case

Judge Vaughn Walker

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Rumors swirled that the federal judge who had struck down California’s same-sex marriage ban last summer was gay, but the lawyers charged with defending the measure remained silent on the subject. Their preferred strategy for getting the ruling overturned on appeal was to focus on the law, not a judge’s personal life, they said.

Eight months later, Proposition 8′s proponents and their attorneys have taken a new position. They filed a motion Monday seeking to vacate Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s historic ruling, a move they said was prompted by the now-retired jurist’s recent disclosure that he is in a long-term relationship with another man.

Lawyers for the ban’s backers argue that the judge’s relationship status, not his sexual orientation, gave him too much in common with the couples who successfully sued to overturn the ban in his court. The judge should have recused himself or at least revealed the relationship to avoid a real or perceived conflict of interest, the lawyers say.

“If at any time while this case was pending before him, Chief Judge Walker and his partner determined that they desired, or might desire, to marry, Chief Judge Walker plainly had an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding,” wrote attorneys for the coalition of religious and conservative groups that put Proposition 8 on the November 2008 ballot.

They are now asking the judge who inherited the case when Walker retired at the end of February to toss out Walker’s August decision. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already is reviewing its legal merits at the request of the voter-approved measure’s sponsors.

Walker has said that he did not consider his sexual orientation to be any more a reason for recusal than another judge’s race or gender normally would be. A spokeswoman said Monday that the judge wouldn’t comment on the motion.

American Foundation for Equal Rights President Chad Griffin, whose group has funded the legal effort to strike down Proposition 8, scoffed at the notion that the judge’s personal life could imperil his ruling.

Griffin noted that the Obama administration recently had decided to stop defending the federal law that bans recognition of same-sex marriage after determining that it, too, was unconstitutional.

“This motion is another in a string of desperate and absurd motions by the proponents of Proposition 8, who refuse to accept that the freedom to marry is a constitutional right,” he said.

Walker, a 67-year-old Republican appointee, declared Proposition 8 to be an unconstitutional violation of gay Californians’ civil rights. He also ordered the state to stop enforcing the gay marriage ban, but the 9th Circuit put his order on hold while the case is on appeal.

Speculation about Walker’s sexual orientation circulated during the 13-day trial that preceded his decision and after he handed down his ruling. Lawyers for Protect Marriage, the coalition that sponsored Proposition 8, however, had purposely refrained from raising his sexual orientation as a legal issue until Monday.

But they decided it gave them grounds for getting Walker’s decision struck down after the judge disclosed his 10-year relationship this month to a group of courthouse reporters, said Protect Marriage general counsel Andy Pugno.

“We deeply regret the necessity of this motion. But if the courts are to require others to follow the law, the courts themselves must do so as well,” Pugno added.

Indiana University Law School professor Charles Geyh, an expert on judicial ethics, said that without more evidence that Walker stood to personally benefit if same-sex marriages were legal in California, he found it difficult to imagine that the particulars of the judge’s same-sex relationship provided gay marriage opponents with an avenue for reversing his ruling.

“It really implies it would be fine if he were essentially surfing at bars and had a new partner every night because he wouldn’t want to be married,” he said. “I don’t see that as advancing their cause.”

Proposition 8′s sponsors also have been trying to get the federal appeals court to order Walker to return his personal video copy of the trial. The judge has been using a three-minute segment of one of their witnesses being cross-examined for a lecture he’s been giving on cameras in the courtroom.

—  John Wright

Stay of Prop 8 ruling prompts protests on a day when gay marriages would have resumed

Nine protesters were arrested Thursday morning following a sit-in at the San Diego County Clerk’s Office, where a gay couple requested a marriage license. The couple had scheduled their appointment prior to a federal appeals court’s decision earlier this week to put same-sex marriages on hold until at least December. Sheriff’s deputies eventually showed up in full riot gear (shown above) to arrest the nine protesters, who are members of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality. More pics from the protest can be found here. According to the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, supporters have called an emergency rally for 5 p.m. outside the jail to protest the arrests and demand the activists’ immediate release.

Meanwhile, up the road in West Hollywood, a rally is planned for 6 p.m. Thursday night at Santa Monica Blvd. and San Vicente Blvd. From the Facebook event page:

Although Judge Walker’s decision was a victory for Prop 8 opponents, the fight is NOT over. Do not let that victorious feeling make you complacent! Let it be known that we will remain vigilant and active until marriage equality is restored in California!

UPDATE: Here’s some video of the San Diego protest:

—  John Wright

Appeals court grants stay of Prop 8 ruling

LISA KEEN  |  Keen News Service

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued an order Monday granting Yes on 8’s request for a stay of Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. The appeals court panel also ordered, without being asked, that Yes on 8’s appeal of Walker’s ruling in Perry v. Schwarzenegger be addressed by the court on an expedited basis.

The panel said it would hear arguments on appeal during the week of Dec. 6, as well as arguments concerning whether Yes on 8 has legal standing to press the appeal.

The two-page order is a disappointment to many same-sex couples in California who were hoping that they would be able to obtain marriage licenses as soon as Judge Walker’s stay expired — at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Wednesday.

“We are very gratified that the Ninth Circuit has recognized the importance and pressing nature of this case and the need to resolve it as quickly as possible by issuing this extremely expedited briefing schedule,” said Ted Olson, one of the lead attorneys for plaintiffs challenging Proposition 8.

Olson, one of the most prominent conservative attorneys in the country, launched the high-profile challenge of California’s voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage with liberal attorney icon David Boies. Walker, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Northern California (San Francisco), heard three weeks of testimony by the plaintiffs and Proposition 8 supporters in January.

In a dramatic 136-page ruling on Aug. 4, Walker declared the same-sex marriage ban in the state constitution violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. Walker agreed to stay — or delay enforcement — of his decision until Aug. 18, giving the 9th Circuit time to decide whether to grant a more extended appeal.

Evan Wolfson, who was a lead attorney on the first same-sex marriage case — in Hawaii in 1996 — called the 9th Circuit panel’s decision to continue Walker’s stay “disappointing.”

“But there are many twists in the road to justice,” said Wolfson, “and we are encouraged by the court’s setting a fast pace for the appeal, revealing that the judges understand how important a quick end to the exclusion from marriage is to gay couples, their loved ones, and all Americans who believe in equality under the law.”

The 9th Circuit panel includes two Clinton appointees — Judges Sidney Thomas and Michael Hawkins — and one Reagan appointee, Edward Leavey.

The panel set Sept. 17 as the date Yes on 8’s initial argument brief is due.

The response brief from the Ted Olson-David Boies legal team challenging Proposition 8 is due Oct. 18. And Yes on 8 may reply to plaintiffs’ brief by Nov. 1.

Monday’s order means the same-sex marriage ban will stay intact at least until December, when the 9th Circuit will hear arguments on both the issue of Yes on 8’s standing to appeal and, perhaps, on the merits of Walker’s decision.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, where U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro ruled — in two separate cases — July 9 that the ban on federal benefits to same-sex couples is unconstitutional, the clock is still ticking down the 60 days the U.S. Department of Justice has to appeal the decisions to the 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

© 2010 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

Opposition is apoplectic over Prop 8 ruling

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker

Sometimes it’s fun to see what the opposition is saying, especially when they lose.

Tim Wildmon is one of the most vociferous anti-gay crusaders in the country as president of the American Family Association. He wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times about the Prop 8 case in that state.

The argument in his letter is that U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker nullified the vote of the people and that the judge imposed his personal opinions.

Here’s the problem with Wildmon’s position. Judge Walker ruled based on the evidence presented at trial. The defense of Prop 8 presented only two witnesses who were completely discredited. Wildmon, himself, would have been a better witness.

One defense witness admitted that the information he gave in testimony was given to him by the attorneys and said that the facts he presented he found on the Internet. The other even admitted under oath that same-sex couples were indeed being discriminated against.

The problem with Wildmon’s argument about the will of the people is that the defense never presented that as an argument in the case. They presented false studies, hearsay and Bible quotes as evidence that same-sex couples should not be treated equally under the law.

Wildmon also argues that the judge is rumored to be gay and so should not have been allowed to hear the case. I’m not sure if that means that heteroseuxal judges should be disqualified in all cases affecting other heterosexuals.

Under his ruling, however, the LGBT community will not have standing to put a proposition on the ballot to invalidate straight marriages either. His ruling protects everyone.

The judge could have ruled that despite all evidence in the trial, the voters do, indeed, have a right to vote on this issue and that they have a right to impose laws that are discriminatory. And the higher courts may rule exactly that way.

Talking to attorneys from Lambda Legal and National Center for Lesbian Rights, two organizations that filed briefs in the case, an evidentiary ruling such as this, is harder to overturn than one based principally on law. In other words, the higher courts will not hear any new evidence and no evidence in the trial supported Prop 8. But the higher courts could rule that despite all the evidence, states have the right to discriminate against same-sex couples and voters have the right to deny equality.

—  David Taffet

ABA agrees with Judge Walker’s ruling

David Boies

This week, the American Bar Association agreed with Judge Vaughn Walker. Gays and lesbians should have the right to civil marriage. They said marriage should be legal in all 50 states.

Only one person spoke against the policy, which passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote by the ABA’s House of Delegates. This is the first endorsement of the Prop 8 ruling by a national organization.

David Boies, one of the attorneys who argued the California case, called the endorsement significant.

“The ABA obviously is the most respected legal organization in the United States, and probably the world, and its opinion will be listened to by legislators and courts,” he said.

—  David Taffet

Politico polling readers on the Prop 8 ruling, and the haters are ahead by 16 percentage points

Back in 2008, the state of California let haters put our civil rights to a popular vote. We lost, and the California Constitution was amended to snatch away the rights of same-sex couples to wed.

On Wednesday, federal District Judge Vaughn Walker issued his ruling in a case challenging that amendment — Proposition 8 — and this time , we won. Judge Walker said the majority doesn’t get to take away our rights just because they don’t like us.

Now the public is voting again, this time on Politico.com, in a poll: “What’s your reaction to the decision that reversed California’s ban on gay marriage?” And guess what — we’re losing. The votes so far are “Like. Hurray for equal rights,” 40 percent; “Dislike. How dare the courts reverse the will of the voters?” 56 percent; and “I’m not sure,” 2 percent.

If you want to have your say, go to Politico.com, scroll down to the “Politico” on the lower right side of the page, and vote.

UPDATE: The final result was 57 percent to 41 percent.

—  admin

Rachel Maddow on Prop 8 ruling and witnesses’ ties to George ‘Rentboy’ Rekers

Rachel Maddow was obviously overjoyed by Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling, issued Wednesday, saying that California’s Prop 8 violates the U.S. Constitution.

—  admin

Lambda Legal’s Ken Upton says today’s Prop 8 ruling will have little immediate practical impact

Ken Upton

We spoke Wednesday morning with Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney with Lambda Legal who’s based in Dallas, about the potential legal implications of this afternoon’s expected ruling in the Prop 8 case. Specifically, we asked Upton what the ruling could mean to folks in Texas, and why we should care.

Upton noted that even if U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker strikes down Prop 8, it’s likely that the decision will be put on hold pending appeal, meaning no same-sex marriages will be performed in California.

“In the short run, it’s not going to do anything as a practical matter because it will be stayed,” Upton said of today’s decision. “Nobody’s going to get married in California, and the decision won’t be the final decision, because it’s going to get appealed at least once. As a practical matter, it won’t really do anything, but it will start the ball rolling on a path that could eventually do something.”

Upton said he is optimistic Walker will strike down Prop 8.

“I read the transcripts, and I heard the arguments, and I read the briefs,” Upton said. “The law is strong in our favor and the evidence was I thought very persuasive in our favor, so it won’t surprise me if he rules for us.”

But Upton added that the key to today’s ruling is not whether Judge Walker upholds or strikes down Prop 8, but the manner in which he does so.

“The result won’t be the final one anyway,” he said. “At this point, he’s just firing the first salvo if you will. What will really be interesting is how far he goes. What will he say about the constitution and how it protects gay people? What level of scrutiny will he give it? Will he talk about marriage itself or will he talk about discrimination against gay people? The immediate effect of it will be more one for lawyers to dissect than it will have any practical effect. It’s going to be years before we know the ultimate result.”

Despite minimal practical impacts, Upton acknowledged that a victory today will give the LGBT community a psychological boost.

“It feels good to see courts do what they’re constitutionally required to do, and that is be a check on government and the political arms of government,” he said. “One colleague suggested that everybody have a bottle of tequila in their office, and once we win, every time the other side calls him [Walker] an activist judge, take a shot, and see how long it takes to get drunk.”

—  John Wright