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California Same-Sex Marriage Trial: An Uneven Matchup

3 years ago
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The lawyers have spoken, endlessly it seems. Nervous or defiant or righteous, the witnesses have testified. The slick spinners have spun overtime. And the zealots have shouted up and down the great Golden State and beyond. Now, the fate of same-sex marriage in California (and beyond) is in the lap of one man, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, a veteran jurist who has painstakingly shepherded the high-profile constitutional fight through its trial stage.

With closing arguments now complete, with relative silence returned to the federal courthouse in San Francisco, all that is left for the judge to decide is which precedents invoked by the equal protection clause of the Constitution he prefers to acknowledge. The choice is stark but in my view the future is clear. I believe Judge Walker will find a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage. I believe he will strike down the results of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative by which California voters outlawed same-sex marriage after the state's courts had endorsed it. Judge Walker will so rule, in large part, because he has been left with virtually no other choice as result of the odd tactics and weak case presented to him by opponents of same-sex marriage.

Take, for example, the bizarre courtroom display Wednesday by Charles Cooper, the lead attorney for defenders of Prop 8. His side presented only two witnesses during the long course of the trial, neither of whom was particularly compelling. In fact, one of the defense witnesses, David Blankenhorn, was so hapless during his testimony a while back that Judge Walker on Wednesday questioned his credentials as an expert on marriage. When you have bad facts, you argue the law. When you've presented little evidence, or the evidence you've presented is not so hot, you say that evidence doesn't matter. That's partly why Cooper told Judge Walker during closing arguments, "Your honor, you don't have to have evidence for this."

To his credit, Judge Walker did not take Cooper's statement lightly -- the facts of this case surely do matter. As recounted well by AOL's Richard Paddock, the judge then asked Cooper: "Seven million Californians, 70 judges and this long history that you described. Why did you present but one witness on the subject" of the impact of Prop 8? Later, after Cooper admitted he didn't know what effect the banning of same-sex marriage would have, Judge Walker said: "Is that enough to impose restrictions on some citizens that other citizens don't suffer?" The exchange is telling because the "effect" of Prop 8 is a factor judges must weigh in the great constitutional balancing this case requires.

Being no potted plant, Ted Olson for the plaintiffs jumped all over Cooper's remarks. Olson said: "Mr. Cooper: 'We don't know. We don't have to prove anything. We don't have any evidence.' You can't take away the rights of tens of thousands of persons and come in here and say 'I don't know' and 'I don't have to prove anything.' " This is a statement that every appellate judge who looks at Judge Walker's ruling will also ponder. When a majority turns on a minority, what level of evidence is required to justify the action? And can an action without evidentiary justification -- like Prop 8, same-sex marriage advocates say -- be upheld as constitutional against a discrimination challenge under the equal protection clause?

The sort of minimalist strategy of litigation by defenders of Prop 8 is either cocky, cynical or suicide. It's cocky if Cooper and Company believe the Constitution is so clearly against same-sex marriage that no set of facts would matter. It's cynical if Cooper believes that Judge Walker's factual findings will be irrelevant to the analyses that will spring up at the 9th Circuit. And it's close to suicide if Prop 8's defenders really believe that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose swing vote will decide this whole thing a year or two from now, will be comfortable endorsing a ban on same-sex marriage based upon such little courtroom evidence supporting it. There are a lot of "ifs" in a tactic like this.

Indeed, during the trial, the main defense witness also made points for the plaintiffs, the supporters of same-sex marriage. The aforementioned Blankenhorn, the key defense witness, ended up as the biggest star of the plaintiff's closing presentation. Olson played videotaped testimony of Blankenhorn declaring: "We would be more American on the day we permit same-sex marriage than we were on the day before." With enemies like that, who needs friends? Indeed, perhaps Cooper will move, post-trial, to strike the testimony of his most notable witness.

With or without Blankenhorn, the plaintiffs loaded up on testimony. Seventeen witnesses -- nine experts -- testified for Olson and David Boies, the other bottle on the top shelf of anti-Prop 8 lawyers. The evidentiary record is massively skewed in favor of the plaintiffs and against the defendants. At closing, Olson told Judge Walker: "Heterosexual people are not going to stop getting married or stop having children or abandon their marriage because the next-door neighbor has a same-sex marriage." In the meantime, Massachusetts, the first state to recognize same-sex marriage, has the lowest divorce rate in the nation.

Put yourself in Judge Walker's shoes. He is a trial judge. Evidence matters to him. So does a factual record to send up to his appeals court. When he looks to Prop 8's foes, he sees good evidence justifying an extension of existing equal protection precedent to cover same-sex couples who want to marry. When he looks to Prop 8's advocates, on the other hand, Judge Walker sees the risky argument that traditional marriage is so immutable that no factual evidence is necessary to defend its contours from extension.

If Judge Walker rules against Prop 8, and that is surely the way things look now, it's conceivable that the 9th Circuit (and/or then the Supreme Court) would rule that the facts developed at trial were "inadequate" for the judge to have reached the conclusion he reached. That might result in a remand of the case back down to the trial judge for more findings of fact or even a new trial, one federal judge I spoke to today said. But appellate courts are neither required nor necessarily advised to give trial lawyers a second chance to make their case. And in most cases they won't -- they'll just affirm the lower court. So it is quite likely that by minimalizing the importance of evidence at this stage of the dispute, Cooper has increased the likelihood of a defeat at trial and a bad record upon which to appeal.

I'm betting that Judge Walker bets on the facts. I predict he'll essentially say: Boies and Olson are right: "I don't know" just isn't good enough.
Filed Under: Gay Rights, Law, Supreme Court

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14 Comments

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HAHAHAHA

I love how people try to bring "the sanctity of marriage" into this argument. Should these same people not be outraged with divorce being legal. Or isn't it funny when they are going to the altar for the 2nd or 3rd time, but still think they have a sanctity of marriage to uphold? Pathetic.

June 18 2010 at 12:39 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to HAHAHAHA's comment
namingway2

Nothing is sacred save what we decide is sacred.

June 18 2010 at 1:47 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Escalonz

The people of California have spoken and the word is no same sex marrieage and that includes so called recognized same sex marriages. People make the law and no judge should over ride it..........ever. If this trend continues it can only mean severe troubles for this nation that we all love................

June 17 2010 at 10:40 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to Escalonz's comment
exzucuh

We will either get this country back to voting for what it wants, A government of the people, or we will soon be in a civil war again. 22 states are already talking about joining together and making their own republic and Constitution. This Nation is falling apart because Immorality has become a constitutional right. No government can support Immorality without taking freedom from moral people.

June 17 2010 at 9:57 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to exzucuh's comment
namingway2

Immorality is a constitutional right. It has always been a constitutional right. I can swear, blaspheme, be an atheist, have sex with whomever I want so long as they want me, read what I want, listen to what I want, and if YOU don't like it? Tough. If you want a country where religious dogma is the law of the land then take a good long look at the Saudis or the Iranians. Do you really believe that Americans will fight another civil war to turn the united states into THAT?

June 18 2010 at 1:46 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
Sam and Pat

If Mr Cohen's prediction is correct, than I would think that Abraham Lincoln must be "spinning in his grave", as the government of the people, by the people, for the people has perished in California!

June 17 2010 at 9:54 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
schicatano2

Didnt the people of california vote already on this twice? and if you cant win in the voting booth, try someway else to get something rammed down are throats.

June 17 2010 at 8:59 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to schicatano2's comment
ghar2k7

So you support Obamacare without repeal? Is that correct? I mean, the majority of the house (since you're talking majorities here) voted to pass it.

June 18 2010 at 7:13 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

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