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

Lance Bass’ new boyfriend is some guy named Brent from Dallas. Anyone recognize him?

According to RadarOnline.com, Brent moved from Dallas to L.A. and recently got out of a long-term relationship. He’s also “happy, happy in love with Lance.” Isn’t that sweet?

—  John Wright

Justice Department appeals lesbian’s reinstatement to Air Force

Witt to serve openly while legal, political battles over DADT continue

GENE JOHNSON | Associated Press

SEATTLE — A lesbian flight nurse discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from serving openly can rejoin the Air Force Reserve, even as the government appeals a judge’s ruling that returned her to the job, her lawyers said Tuesday, Nov. 23.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in September that former Maj. Margaret Witt must be reinstated because her dismissal advanced no legitimate military goals and thus violated her constitutional rights.

The Justice Department appealed that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, its deadline for doing so.

But government lawyers did not ask the appeals judges to freeze the lower court’s ruling while the appeal proceeds — and Witt’s lawyers said that means she can be reinstated.

“I am thrilled to be able to serve in the Air Force again,” Witt said in a written statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state. “The men and women in the unit are like family members to me, and I’ve been waiting a long time to rejoin them.”

Witt was suspended in 2004 and subsequently discharged after the Air Force learned she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman. She sued to get her job back.

Leighton initially upheld her firing, but in 2008 a three-judge 9th Circuit panel said military members could not be discharged under “don’t ask” unless their dismissal furthered military goals such as troop morale or unit cohesion. It sent the case back to Leighton, who ruled that Witt’s firing actually hurt morale in her unit.

If Witt is reinstated, she would be serving openly at a time when the military’s policy on gays is in disarray. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates want to end the ban, but say it should be done through Congress, not the courts. A federal judge in California has declared the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law unconstitutional — a ruling the Justice Department is also appealing — and in the meantime, the Pentagon has issued new guidelines that have drastically cut the numbers of gays being dismissed under the policy.

The Pentagon plans to release a monthslong study Tuesday, Nov. 30 on how lifting the gay service ban would affect the armed forces.

The Justice Department did not immediately say why it did not seek a stay of Leighton’s ruling. The Air Force Reserve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, where Witt was based, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

“It’s indicative of the effort the White House is making to thread the needle on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,”’ said Chris Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, a pro-repeal think tank based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “They’re holding the line that they need to continue to appeal these, but they are taking an extra measure to address this policy and try to make it moot. This is the first White House that has really made an effort to keep gays in the military.”

Despite being excited to rejoin the Air Force, Witt said she was disappointed the government was appealing at all.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department was simply defending the law, as it historically does when acts of Congress are challenged. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the appeal shows why it’s important for the Senate to repeal the “misguided policy” quickly — before a new Congress takes over, with a slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate.

“This filing in no way diminishes the president’s — and his administration’s — firm commitment to achieving a legislative repeal of DADT this year,” Gibbs said in an e-mailed statement.

“Don’t ask” prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members, but allows the discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered to be engaging in homosexual activity.

—  John Wright

Judge orders lesbian reinstated to Air Force

Ruling is 2nd this month declaring ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ unconstitutional

GENE JOHNSON  |  Associated Press

TACOMA, Wash. — A federal judge ruled Friday, Sept. 24 that a decorated flight nurse discharged from the Air Force for being gay should be given her job back as soon as possible in the latest legal setback to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton came in a closely watched case as a tense debate has been playing out over the policy. Senate Republicans blocked an effort to lift the ban this week, but Leighton is now the second federal judge this month to deem the policy unconstitutional.

Maj. Margaret Witt was suspended in 2004 and subsequently discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy after the Air Force learned she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman. She sued to get her job back.

Leighton hailed her as a “central figure in a long-term, highly charged civil rights movement.” Tears streaked down Witt’s cheeks and she hugged her parents, her partner and supporters following the ruling.

“Today you have won a victory in that struggle, the depth and duration of which will be determined by other judicial officers and hopefully soon the political branches of government,” the judge told her, choking up as he recalled Witt’s dramatic testimony about her struggles.

The ruling was the second legal victory this month for opponents of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and it throws the law into further disarray.

Barring an appeal, Witt will now be able to serve despite being openly gay, and a federal judge in California earlier this month ruled the law unconstitutional and is considering whether to immediately halt the ban. While such an injunction would prevent openly gay service members from being discharged going forward, it wouldn’t do anything for those who have already been dismissed.

Witt’s attorneys, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, say her case now provides a template for gays who have been previously discharged to seek reinstatement.

Gay rights advocates say that if the government must justify each firing under “don’t ask,” it will mean a slow death for the policy — even if an outright repeal isn’t endorsed by Congress or the courts.

The 1993 law prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members, but allows the discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered engaging in homosexual activity.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the ruling, but James Lobsenz, Witt’s attorney, said he expected an appeal.

In 2006, Leighton rejected Witt’s claims that the Air Force violated her rights, following precedent that the military’s policy on gays is constitutional. An appeals court panel overruled him two years later, holding that in light of a Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas ban on sodomy, “don’t ask, don’t tell” intrudes on the rights of gay service members. For the government to discharge gays it must prove that their firings further military goals, the panel said.

Leighton determined after a six-day trial that Witt’s discharge advanced no legitimate military interest. To the contrary, her dismissal hurt morale in her unit and weakened the squadron’s ability to carry out its mission, he ruled.

“There is no evidence that wounded troops care about the sexual orientation of the flight nurse or medical technician tending to their wounds,” Leighton ruled.

Leighton became emotional as he recalled Witt’s testimony about the support she has received from her parents since she came out to them on the eve of filing her lawsuit.

“The best thing to come out of all this tumult is still that love and support,” he said.

A crowd of spectators remained quiet until the judge left the courtroom, when it erupted in cheers.

“I’m just so thrilled I have the chance to do what I wanted to do all along: that’s return to my unit,” Witt said.

She also said that she appreciated the judge’s recognition of the many gays who continue to quietly serve in the military.

—  John Wright