Prop 8 Trial Comes to a Close

Judge Walker

Judge Walker

Here’s the preview I wrote at Metro Weekly for today’s closing arguments:

More than five months ago, the trial questioning the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 – prohibiting same-sex marriages in the state – began in U.S. District Court. Tomorrow, June 16, the trial of Perry v. Schwarzenegger will come to an end. That end, however, could also be the beginning of the much larger case for equality in marriage across the country.

I’ll be live-blogging here with thoughts and interesting notes about the argument as it happens, but also be sure to follow my list on Twitter of people in the courtroom and tweeting the closing arguments live.

Interesting question and answer:

JUDGE WALKER: Are you focusing on the facts pertaining to the California initiative or facts pertinent generally and throughout the country with respect to marriage?
MR. OLSON: Both of those.


More from Olson:

I think it’s really important to set forth the prism through which this case must be viewed by the judiciary. And that is the perspective on marriage, the same subject that we are talking about, by the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court — the freedom to marry, the freedom to make the choice to marry — the Supreme Court has said in, I counted, 14 cases going back to 1888, 122 years. And these are the words of all of those Supreme Court decisions about what marriage is. And I have set forth this distinction between what the plaintiffs have called it and what the Supreme Court has called it.

Tough words. This logic would apply across the United States, regardless of the type of marriage ban, whether it be statute or constitutional amendment (or just a lack of marriage equality without any affirmative prohibition, like in New York).

The judge brings up Baker v. Nelson:

JUDGE WALKER: Well, now, the Supreme Court in the Baker versus Nelson case decided that the issue which we are [concerned] with here was not ripe for the Supreme Court to weigh in on. That was 1972. What’s happened in the 38 years since 1972?

Interesting softball. Olson, of course, responded that much had changed — noting, most specifically, Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas.

Walker notes that, unlike in Lawrence, we are not dealing with a criminal statute here. Olson’s response is excellent:

And then the court goes on to say, persons in home sexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes just as heterosexual persons do. The court was talking about the private intimate behavior. If the court had said instead you can go to jail for five days because we caught you doing those things, we will take away your right to drive on the highways, we will take away your right to marry because you do those things or you engage in that conduct, it seems to me that that is just as unconstitutional especially if the thing which is taken away is also a fundamental constitutional right.

Good stuff.

Hard talk from Ted Olson:

It’s a traditional definition of marriage, which is something that we have always done it that way is the same — is a corollary to the because I say so. It’s not a reason. You can’t have continued discrimination in public schools because you have always done it that way. You can’t have continued discrimination between races on the basis of marriage because you have always done it that way.

That line of reasoning would have prevented the Loving marriage. It would have justified racially segregated schools.

Wow. Olson goes on:

Well, we know that taking away the right to marry was indeed the very essence of slavery. Yet that very freedom, once denied to slaves and denied to interracial couples throughout this country is now being denied to the plaintiffs not because they are Chinese, not because of their race, but because of their sexual orientation. How can it be wrong in those areas and right in this area under the Equal Protection Clause? That does not square with any of the language that the Supreme Court has used in deciding equal protection cases. And that has been used, that same language has been used to strike down classes among citizens. That’s the language of Romer. That principle has been extended from race to nationality to ancestry to sex to legitimacy to the favoring of the husband in matters of marital property and in 1996 in the Romer case to sexual orientation.

That, my friends, is a closing.

Therese Stewart from San Francisco is up next, talking about the specific harm the city and county suffer because of Proposition 8. Why do people go to San Fran to marry?

MS. STEWART: Because it’s long been the City of love the city where people leave their hearts. It’s a fact of our culture.

JUDGE WALKER: The City of love.


Charles Cooper is closing for the Prop 8 proponents:

It’s because this relationship is crucial to the public interest. It’s crucial to the public interest because, Your Honor, the procreative sexual relations . . . benefit to society and [the plaintiff's argument] represents a very real threat to society’s interests.


MR. COOPER: Yes, Your Honor. A threat in the sense that, to whatever extent children are born into the world without this stable, enduring marital union, raised and responsibility taken for the offspring by both of the parents that brought them into the world, then a host of very important and very negative social implications arise and potential social consequences arise.


Cooper’s closing is weak.

JUDGE WALKER: Don’t we have to have evidence?

MR. COOPER: You don’t have to have evidence of this point, if one court after another has recognized — let me turn to the California cases on this. The first purpose of matrimony any by the laws of nature and society is procreation. The California Supreme Court said that . . . . A century later the California Supreme Court reemphasized that. ” The institution of marriage serves the public interest because it channels biological drives — channels biological drives that might otherwise become socially destructive and it ensures the care and education of children in a stable environment.” That’s the California Supreme Court, Your Honor. That’s the purpose of marriage in this state according to the California Supreme Court.

And? The judge concurred with my thoughts here:

JUDGE WALKER: Let me ask, if you have got 7 million Californians who took this position, 70 judges as you pointed out, and this long history that you have described, why in this case did you present but one witness on this subject, one witness? It seems you had a lot to choose from if you had that many people behind you. Why only one witness? And I think it fair to say that his testimony was equivocal in some respects.

Ouch. Then, Cooper responded:

You need only go back to your chambers, Your Honor, and pull down any dictionary, pull down any book that discusses marriage, and you will find this procreative purpose at its heart wherever you go unless, unless, Your Honor, that book was written by one of their experts or has been written over the course of the last 30 years.

The “30 years” point somewhat tore apart his case, as Cooper admitted that things have changed in the past 30 years.

JUDGE WALKER: If it is taking place throughout the country and throughout the world in this fashion, then doesn’t that indicate a changed perspective with respect to the role and function of marriage in society?

MR. COOPER: In the minds of many, yes, Your Honor. In the minds of many.

Yeah, I’m not sure how you jump out of that hole. To say that Walker’s questions of Cooper are more probing and less sympathetic is to understate them. This:

JUDGE WALKER: Let me ask you. You heard Mr. Olson this morning recount the experience of, and the background of the loving decision by the Supreme Court in 1964, I think, 67. And up to that time numerous states had laws on the books which prohibited interracial marriage. At some point there came exactly the same kind of social change that you have just described with respect to homosexuality. And at some point, 1967, that matured into a constitutional recognition of a constitutional right, that the limitation against interracial marriage violated a fundamental individual right under our communication. Why are we not at that same at this point . . . here with respect to same-sex marriage?

Well then.

After — in his discussion of the standard of review — positing that gays are not politically powerless and asserting that homosexuality is not immutable, Cooper did acknowledge that gays do have a history of discrimination.

JUDGE WALKER: This Proposition 8 and these other positions in other states that limit marriage to opposite-sex couples, the DOMA statute that has been mentioned, the exclusion of gays and lesbians from military service for a long period of time, aren’t all those simply indicia of a long history of discrimination?

MR. COOPER: No, we would — I want to are clear on this. We have never disputed and we have offered to stipulate that gays and lesbians have been the victims of a long and shameful history of discrimination. We have been bound to note that thankfully the situation today in 2010 is not what it was even yesterday let alone in 1990 when high tech gays was decided, thankfully.

Um, this is just a roundabout, sneaky way of claiming that gays aren’t politically powerless any longer.

Walker gets into what rational basis is even claimed:

JUDGE WALKER: A disability, a classification, has been put on marriage which disables people who wish to marry others of the same sex. In order to disable certain citizens do you not have to show a core relative benefit to others or to society? And the “I don’t know” or you don’t know where this is going to lead answer, is that enough to impose upon some citizens a restriction that others do not suffer from?

MR. COOPER: It is if there is a rational basis for that distinction, yes. I really think that really ends up being the bottom line on it. If there is no — if there is — if in looking at the, whatever society’s purposes are for marriage and interests are for regulating and caring about marriage, if there is no basis on which to draw a distinction between one group and another, then the distinction can’t stand. But if there is a distinguishing characteristic that is relevant to one of those purposes, then the distinction can stand.

Not so sure there.

Now, the plaintiffs will have a 30-minute rebuttal time. Olson crushes from the start:

[Y]ou can’t come in here and say I don’t know and I don’t have to prove anything and I don’t need any evidence except for some people writing in books who won’t come into court and subject themselves to the judicial process.

. . . .

Mr. Cooper says you have to accept the fact that first of all you have to accept my definition it has to be between a man and a woman. Then if you have oh marriage between a man and a man or a woman or a woman it will change the marriage. Well, of course it will, because you started by defining the term that you wanted to define.

Blunt. Echoing an earlier editorial about the Vermont marriage case in The New Republic that I’ve always loved, Olson said: “Proposition 8 isn’t changing the institution of marriage. It is correcting a restriction based upon sex and sexual orientation.”He then addressed the issue of why this is coming up now:

It’s no longer against the law to work for the federal government. It’s no longer against the law in most places to walk into a bar if you are a homosexual. The break down thank God of some of these barriers has changed people’s attitudes and I am sure that contributes to people saying, “Now, well, if that’s the case and psychiatrists have changed their view about homosexuality.” People no longer think it’s a disorder or anything like that. They have explained and people have come to understand the differences between various members of society and we have found out that all of those horrible taboos are not justified. In fact — and there are stories, some of which were in the ads that were supporting Proposition 8, are no longer true. So of course people are thinking well, if these are our fellow citizens and they don’t present a risk to us, they are not damaging they are just like us, why shouldn’t we start talking about marriage?

Nicely put. Olson ended:

[Y]ou have to have a reason [for Prop 8] and you have to have a reason that’s real not post hoc justification not speculation not built on stereotypes and not hypothetical.

That’s what the Supreme Court decisions tell us. We don’t have that here. We have a decision that takes — and there isn’t any question. A group of people who have been victims of discrimination, who are a discreet minority, who have identifiable characteristics, their sexual orientation. And we want to foreclose them from participating in the most fundamental relationship in life.

. . . .

The Romer case that says you can’t take away rights and make them unconstitutional impossible to recover except by amending your state constitution. And the Lawrence case that says that the sexual orientation of individuals and their private conduct is a protected right. You cannot then in the face of all those decisions by the United States Supreme
Court say to these individuals, “We are going to take away the constitutional right to liberty privacy association and sexual intimacy that we tell you that you have and then we will now use that as a basis for not allowing you the freedom to marry.” That is not acceptable. It’s not acceptable under our Constitution. And Mr. Blankenhorn is absolutely right the day that we end that we will be more American.”

With that, as Judge Walker concluded, “ The matter is submitted.

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About the Author

Chris Geidner is the award-winning senior political & legal reporter at BuzzFeed and has written for Metro Weekly, The Atlantic Online, The American Prospect,, Salon and other publications, as well as at his blog, Law Dork. He has appeared regularly on television commenting on current affairs, including MSNBC, PBS, HLN & Current. Prior to moving to D.C. in 2009, he served as an attorney on the senior staff at the Ohio Attorney General's Office and had earlier worked for a leading Columbus law firm. An extended biography can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter.