Experts: Prop 8 ruling may dodge high court

9th Circuit panel crafts its decision striking down California amendment narrowly, avoids question of whether other states can ban marriage

Prop8

DAY OF DECISION | Supporters of marriage equality react outside the courthouse after a federal appeals court declared California's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional on Tuesday, Feb. 7 in San Francisco. (AP Photo/San Francisco Chronicle, Lea Suzuki)

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Conservative critics like to point out that the federal appeals court that just declared California’s same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional has its decisions overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court more often than other judicial circuits, a record that could prove predictive if the high court agrees to review the gay marriage case on appeal.

Yet legal experts seemed to think the panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals that struck down the voter-approved ban on Tuesday, Feb. 7 purposefully served up its 2-1 opinion in a narrow way and seasoned it with established holdings so the Supreme Court would be less tempted to bite.

The appeals court not only limited the scope of its decision to California, even though the 9th Circuit also has jurisdiction in eight other Western states, but relied on the Supreme Court’s own 1996 decision overturning a Colorado measure that outlawed discrimination protections for gay people to argue that the voter-approved Proposition 8 violated the civil rights of gay and lesbian Californians.

That approach makes it much less likely the high court would find it necessary to step in, as it might have if the 9th Circuit panel had concluded that any state laws or amendments limiting marriage to a man and a woman run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal treatment, several analysts said.

“There is no reason to believe four justices on the Supreme Court, which is what it takes to grant (an appeal) petition, are champing at the bit to take this issue on,’’ University of Michigan law school professor Steve Sanders said. “The liberals on the court are going to recognize this was a sensible, sound decision that doesn’t get ahead of the national debate … and I don’t think the decision would be so objectionable to the court’s conservatives that they would see a reason to reach out and smack the 9th Circuit.’’

Lawyers for the coalition of religious conservative groups that qualified Proposition 8 for the November 2008 ballot and campaigned for its passage said they have not decided whether to ask a bigger 9th Circuit to rehear the case or to take an appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

However, they said they were optimistic that if the high court accepts an appeal, Tuesday’s ruling would be reversed.

“The 9th Circuit’s decision is completely out of step with every other federal appellate and Supreme Court decision in American history on the subject of marriage, but it really doesn’t come as a surprise, given the history of the 9th Circuit, which is often overturned,’’ Andy Pugno, the coalition’s general counsel, said in a fundraising letter to Proposition 8’s supporters. “Ever since the beginning of this case, we’ve known that the battle to preserve traditional marriage will ultimately be won or lost not here, but rather in the U.S. Supreme Court.’’

Regardless of their next steps, gay and lesbian couples were unlikely to be able to get married in California anytime soon. The 9th Circuit panel’s ruling will not take effect until after the deadline passes in two weeks for Proposition 8’s backers to appeal to a larger panel, and the earliest the Supreme Court could consider whether to take the case would be in the fall.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who was named to the 9th Circuit by President Jimmy Carter and has a reputation as the court’s liberal lion, wrote Tuesday’s 80-page majority ruling with concurrence from Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, an early appointee of President Bill Clinton. Judge Randy Smith, who was the last 9th Circuit judge nominated by President George W. Bush, dissented.

In tailoring the decision to apply only to California, Reinhardt cited two factors that distinguish Proposition 8 from the one-man, one-woman marriage laws and constitutional amendments in the other 9th Circuit states and that he said demonstrate that it “serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and humanity of gays and lesbians.’’

The first is that California since 2005 has granted same-sex couples all the rights and benefits of marriage if they register as domestic partners.

The second is that five months before Proposition 8 was enacted as a state constitutional amendment, the California Supreme Court’s Court had legalized same-sex marriage by striking down a pair of laws that had limited marriage to a man and a woman. California is the only state, therefore, where gays have won the right to marry and had it stripped away.

The amendment’s “singular’’ work of denying gay Californians the designation of marriage while leaving in place domestic partnerships proves that Proposition 8 deprives same-sex relationships of society’s dignity and respect, Reinhardt wrote.

“A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but to the couple desiring to enter into a committed lifelong relationship, a marriage by the name of ‘registered domestic partnership’ does not,’’ he said. “We are excited to see someone ask, ‘Will you marry me?’, whether on bended knee in a restaurant or in text splashed across a stadium Jumbotron. Certainly, it would not have the same effect to see, ‘Will you enter into a registered domestic partnership with me?’”

The opinion goes on to draw parallels between California’s same-sex marriage ban and the Colorado opinion the Supreme Court struck down on a 6-3 vote after concluding that it was based on moral disapproval of gays. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in that case, known as Romer v. Evans, and if the court agrees to take up Proposition 8, the similarities could hit the “sweet spot’’ that might persuade him to side with four other justices in upholding the 9th Circuit, said Douglas NeJaime, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

“Everyone is looking to Justice Kennedy, assuming that Justice Kennedy would not issue a sweepingly bad decision for gay rights, and yet people don’t know if he is ready to go so far as to say nationwide same-sex couples can get married,’’ NeJaime said. “I think the opinion evidences a real savviness about the posture of this case and its position in the trajectory of a national movement for marriage for same sex couples.’’

Smith, the lone dissenting judge, disagreed that Proposition 8 necessarily served no purpose other than to treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens. He pointed out that its backers claimed it could serve to promote responsible child-rearing among opposite-sex couples, and said courts were obligated to uphold laws in the face of civil rights challenges unless they were “clearly wrong, a display of arbitrary power (or) not an exercise of judgment.’’

“There is good reason for this restraint,’’ Smith said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

We’re used to state-by-state laws on same-sex marriage, but what about county by county?

Conservative House Republicans in Iowa have introduced a bill that would prohibit county recorders form issuing marriage licenses — and block the state Supreme Court from reviewing the issue.

The apparent goal of the legislation is to prevent additional same-sex marriages in Iowa before a constitutional amendment can be passed to ban them. The Iowa House has already approved a resolution that would launch such an amendment.

But even the state’s attorney general says the latest proposal is unconstitutional because it would block review by the state Supreme Court:

That possible outcome: Iowans could challenge a recorder’s decision in trial courts, but those decisions could not be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

That would make the lower court ruling final and would mean Iowa could become a patchwork of counties in which some recognized the law and others did not.

“I think the result is that you would have a hodgepodge of rulings across the state,” Bartrum said. “It would depend on whatever the local district judge thought because there would be no uniform appeal.”

While this legislation would clearly be a bad thing for Iowa, where same-sex marriage is already legal, we wouldn’t mind seeing a different version of it in Texas. Since our state leaders claim they’re all about local control, why not let the gays marry in Dallas County?

—  John Wright