Gay marriage: Court weighs validity of Prop. 8 ruling by gay judge
Proponents of California's Prop. 8 gay marriage ban say the 2010 ruling against it should be vacated because the judge failed to disclose that he was in a long-term gay relationship.
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Supporters of a ban on same-sex marriage say the ruling should be vacated because the San Francisco-based judge in the case failed to disclose that he was, himself, in a long-term gay relationship and stood to personally benefit from his landmark ruling.
At issue is whether Chief US District Judge Vaughn Walker, who has since retired, should have revealed his relationship to the parties in the litigation prior to the 2010 trial or stepped quietly aside before hearing the case.
The question arises in the context of a legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that authorized amending the state constitution to limit marriage to a union between one man and one woman.
California voters adopted the ballot initiative with 52 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed. Seven million voters supported the man-woman marriage amendment, 6.4 million opposed it. The action effectively took the issue out of the state courts.
The only remaining legal forum open to gay rights advocates hoping to overturn Proposition 8 was the federal courts.
A gay couple and a lesbian couple filed a civil rights lawsuit claiming Proposition 8 violated equal protection and due process rights guaranteed under the US Constitution. Their case was randomly assigned to Chief Judge Walker.
The judge conducted a 12-day, high-profile trial in January 2010. He announced his decision in August 2010.
Walker ruled that California had no conceivable justification to limit its definition of marriage to a man and a woman while offering identical rights to same-sex couples under domestic partnerships.
Walker invalidated the state constitutional amendment and permanently enjoined California officials from excluding same-sex couples from marriage in the state.
“Plaintiffs do not seek recognition of a new right,” the judge said. “Rather, plaintiffs ask California to recognize their relationships for what they are: marriages.”
Civil and gay rights advocates nationwide hailed Walker as a hero.
Supporters of Proposition 8 appealed Walker’s decision, arguing that the federal judge ignored binding US Supreme Court and appeals court precedents that the traditional man-woman definition of marriage does not violate the US Constitution.
Several months after his ruling, Walker announced his retirement from the bench. During a meeting with reporters he disclosed for the first time to the media that he is gay and that he was in a continuing 10-year relationship.
Lawyers for Proposition 8 advocates seized on the admission and filed a motion that Walker’s earlier decision in the case should be thrown out because he had a personal interest in the outcome of the litigation.
The lawyers are not arguing that Walker should be disqualified because he is gay. Their argument is that Walker’s long-term same-sex relationship created a potential significant personal interest for the judge in the outcome of the litigation.
Should he wish to marry his long-term partner in California, Judge Walker held the power to make it happen.
A federal judge dismissed an initial recusal motion. The issue is now before a three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
The same three judges are also examining Walker’s landmark ruling that the US Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry. But first they must decide whether Walker should have recused himself.
“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,” wrote Washington lawyer Charles Cooper in his brief to the three-judge panel.