Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, Esq.
(San Francisco, CA, June 14, 2011)—Today, Chief Judge James Ware of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California resoundingly denied Proposition 8 supporters’ motion to invalidate former U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker’s landmark ruling striking down Proposition 8.
After a three-week trial last year, Judge Walker ruled in a 135-page decision that Prop 8, the 2008 amendment to the California Constitution that stripped the right to marry from same-sex couples, violates the United States Constitution. In April 2011, supporters of Prop 8 filed a motion to invalidate Judge Walker’s decision, claiming that Judge Walker, who has since retired, should have declined to hear the case because he is gay and in a long-term relationship with another man. Last month, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, the ACLU of Northern California and Equality California filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the motion. The groups argued that the Prop 8 supporters’ motion closely parallels long-discredited attempts to disqualify judges based on irrelevant characteristics such as race, sex, or religion. The brief strongly disputed the Prop 8 supporters’ claim that no gay, lesbian, or bisexual judge could ever impartially preside over a case involving the rights of same-sex couples—an offensive suggestion that courts have consistently rejected in similar cases involving race, sex, and religious discrimination.
Judge Ware denied the motion to vacate Judge Walker’s opinion, ruling that it is “unreasonable to presume that a judge is incapable of making an impartial decision about the constitutionality of a law, solely because, as a citizen, the judge could be affected by the proceedings.” Judge Ware pointed out that similar arguments with respect to characteristics like race and religion have been “categorically rejected by federal courts” and that requiring recusal on that basis would require the “recusal of minority judges in most, if not all, civil rights cases.”
Judge Ware also made clear that all citizens have an equal interest in striking down unconstitutional laws: “[E]njoining a enforcement of [an unconstitutional] law is a public good that benefits all in our society equally&mdashall Californians have an equal interest in the outcome of the case” The decision also rejects the Prop 8 proponents’ underlying accusation that judge Walker could not have remained impartial in this case: “A well-informed, thoughtful observer would recognize that the mere fact that a judge is in a relationship with another person&mdashwhether of the same or the opposite sex&mdashdoes not… imply that the judge must be so interested in marrying that person that he would be unable to exhibit the impartiality which, it is presumed, all federal judges maintain.”
As a result of this order, Judge Walker’s historic decision striking down Prop 8 still stands, although the appeal of that decision continues in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell:
“Today’s ruling is an unequivocal vindication of Judge Walker and a resounding defense of the integrity of our judicial system. Judge Ware’s decision is a victory for everyone, because Judge Ware confirmed that all of us—not just LGBTQ Californians, or members of other minority groups—have an equal stake in seeing that the Constitution is upheld. Judge Ware’s opinion made clear that personal characteristics such as sexual orientation cannot be fodder for attacks on judges’ integrity. This ruling will protect all judges from similarly desperate and unwarranted attacks from parties who lose their initial case and unfairly seek a second bite at the apple.”
For more information about the status of the appeal of Judge Walker’s decision, read NCLR’s FAQ.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.