News :: National

Court Affirms Prop. 8 Judge’s Verdict

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jun 14, 2011
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A federal judge found on June 14 that former Judge Vaughn Walker was not obligated to disclose the fact that he was in a long-term relationship with another man at the time the legal challenge to Proposition 8 landed on his docket.

With that finding, the judge also declined to vacate Walker’s finding that Proposition 8 had violates the Constitutional rights of California same-sex married couples, whose right to wed was rescinded by the narrowly-approved 2008 ballot initiative that amended the California constitution and barred access to marriage by gay and lesbian families.

Judge Walker had made a point to say that he ruled against Proposition 8’s backers because the facts presented in court did not prove their case.

But when Walker earlier this year disclosed publicly that he is gay and in a long-term relationship, backers of the anti-gay measure went to court to try to overturn the verdict, arguing that Walker and his same-sex life partner might have benefited directly from Walker’s verdict if they had any intention of marrying.

The Prop. 8 proponents said that Walker should have either disclosed his status as a gay man and his relationship, or else recused himself from the case.

U.S. District Court Judge James Ware disagreed in his verdict, reported the Los Angeles Times on June 14.

"It is not reasonable 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," Ware’s finding read in part.

The fact that Walker is gay "gave him no greater interest in a proper decision on the merits that would exist for any other judge or citizen," Ware’s decision added.

The finding addressed the issue of whether, and how much, judges should be required to disclose about their private lives if presiding over cases that could be construed as having some level of personal meaning to them. Prop 8 Trial Tracker posted additional excerpts from the ruling.

"[T]he Court observes that Judge Walker, like all judges, had a duty to preserve the integrity of the judiciary," wrote Ware. "Among other things, this means that if, in an overabundance of caution, he were to have disclosed intimate, but irrelevant, details about his personal life that were not reasonably related to the question of disqualification, he could have set a pernicious precedent.

"Such a precedent would be detrimental to the integrity of the judiciary, because it would promote, incorrectly, disclosure by judges of highly personal information (e.g., information about a judge’s history of being sexually abused as a child), however irrelevant or time-consuming," added the opinion.

"Contrary to the intent of Section 455, which was designed to preserve judicial integrity through practices of transparency, it is clear that fostering the practice of commencing a judicial proceeding with an extensive exploration into the history and psyche of the presiding judge would produce the spurious appearance that irrelevant personal information could impact the judge’s decision-making, which would be harmful to the integrity of the courts."

Ware went on to reject any claim that Vaughn’s verdict should be tossed on the theory that, being a gay man in a long-term relationship, he and his partner must necessarily have wanted to avail themselves of marriage, and therefore Walker’s verdict would have been issued from personal bias.

"[T]he presumption that ’all people in same-sex relationships think alike’ is an unreasonable presumption, and one which has no place in legal reasoning," wrote Ware.

"The presumption that Judge Walker, by virtue of being in a same-sex relationship, had a desire to be married that rendered him incapable of making an impartial decision, is as warrantless as the presumption that a female judge is incapable of being impartial in a case in which women seek legal relief," Ware’s opinion continued.

"On the contrary: it is reasonable to presume that a female judge or a judge in a same-sex relationship is capable of rising above any personal predisposition and deciding such a case on the merits. The Motion fails to cite any evidence that Judge Walker would be incapable of being impartial, but to presume that Judge Walker was incapable of being impartial, without concrete evidence to support that presumption, is inconsistent with what is required under a reasonableness standard."

GLBT equality advocates were jubilant.

"Motion to Vacate DENIED," read an email message sent out by Equality California.

"This is the news we were hoping for," the email message continued. "If Judge Ware had decided that Judge Walker should have removed himself from hearing the case because he is gay, Judge Walker’s ruling in 2010 that Prop. 8 is unconstitutional could have been overturned.

"It also would have set a dangerous, far-reaching precedent," the Equality California message said. "Female judges could be barred from hearing any cases that affect women. Black, Latino and Asian American judges could be barred from hearing cases that affect these groups. Today’s ruling reaches far beyond the LGBT community and is a cause for elation."

Critics of the case, which was brought by lawyers for anti-gay group ProtectMarriage.com, have said that the same reasoning employed by those seeking to overturn Walker’s verdict could also be used against a heterosexual jurist.

"The proponents of Prop. 8 stood up in court yesterday and said Judge Ware should knock out the ruling just because Judge Walker is gay, that essentially he ran a ’kangaroo court,’ " a message emailed by the California-based Courage Campaign read.

Both groups called for the public release of video records of the trial, which ended last year with Walker’s verdict against the anti-gay measure.

Judge Walker had initially sought to allow the trial to be broadcast in courthouses around the country and on YouTube, but the U.S. Supreme Court intervened at the request of Prop. 8’s backers, who claimed that their witnesses could be identified and targeted by gay thugs if the trial were broadcast.

Opponents of the ballot initiative countered that seeing the trial unfold before their eyes would educate millions of Americans about the issues and, they said, the motivation behind the measure: anti-gay animus.

Though the trial was not broadcast, it was videotaped. Prop. 8 backers have also accused Walker of violating the instructions not to broadcast the trial by showing portions of the video record to audiences to illustrate a lecture he delivered about the case. Proponents of the anti-gay measure want Walker to hand over the recordings.

"Yesterday in federal court, ProtectMarriage.com’s lawyers sputtered about how important it was to hide this public trial from the public because it’s so ’emotional,’ " the email missive from the Courage Campaign said.

"The videos they want buried forever show that Prop. 8 was based on prejudice, not facts. They even show the proponents’ witness testifying under oath that same-sex marriage strengthens America and its families."

The case has spawned a number of separate trials and legal actions. Walker’s verdict is under appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the California Supreme Court is due to take up the question of whether or not private organizations may defend a law when the state government declines to do so, as government officials in California have refused to defend Proposition 8.

Judge Ware has said that he will issue a separate opinion on Walker’s use of the video materials.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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