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Judge rejects motion to vacate Proposition 8 ruling

on June 14, 2011

A motion to vacate last summer’s Proposition 8 decision, which ruled the state’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional, was denied today by US District Chief Judge James Ware.

On April 25, Proposition 8 supporters filed the motion on the grounds that now-retired District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, who in August, 2010, ruled that the ban against same-sex marriages should be overturned, later publicly stated that he is gay and was in a same-sex relationship during the trial. Proposition 8 supporters argued that Walker should have been disqualified from presiding over the case because his 10-year same-sex relationship gave him an interest in the outcome of the trial. Because Walker should have been disqualified, the motion argued, his judgment should also be vacated.

Today, Judge Ware, who replaced Walker after his retirement, rejected this argument, writing: “The sole fact that a federal judge shares the same circumstances or personal characteristics with other members of the general public, and that the judge could be affected by the outcome of a proceeding in the same way that other members of the general public would be affected, is not a basis for either recusal or disqualification. … 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.”

In his ruling, Ware wrote that Proposition 8 supporters had based their motion not on concerns that Walker might be biased because of his sexual orientation, but because his involvement in a long-term same-sex relationship gave him an interest in the outcome of the trial — namely, a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage would have given him the ability to marry his partner if he so chose.

But ultimately, Ware dismissed this reasoning, writing: “The presumption that ‘all people in same-sex relationships think alike’ is an unreasonable presumption, and one which has no place in legal reasoning.  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 further wrote that Walker had no obligation to disclose his relationship status, or to recuse himself from the trial.

Today’s ruling is the latest in a complicated political battle over California marriage rights that has ranged from the legal system to the ballot box and back again. In May, 2008, the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and 18,000 couples married in the following six months. That November, voters approved Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage by amending the California constitution to state that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Two same-sex couples filed suit against the state, arguing that the amendment violated their right to equal protection under the law. The resulting case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, was heard in San Francisco federal court with Judge Walker presiding. Opening arguments began in January, 2010, with attorney Theodore Olson, former solicitor general during the Bush administration, arguing against Proposition 8, saying that it eliminated a right implicit in the US Constitution. Attorney Charles Cooper, arguing for Proposition 8 supporters, argued that altering the tradition of heterosexual marriage would change the purpose of marriage from procreation to personal fulfillment and would result in social harms including higher rates of divorce.

Walker heard closing arguments that June, and on August 4, 2010, issued his ruling, overturning Proposition 8 and writing that the ban on same-sex marriages violates Californians’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license,” Walker wrote in his 2010 ruling. “Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.  Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.” (You can read the full ruling here.)

Proposition 8 supporters appealed the ruling. Additionally, a stay was placed on Walker’s ruling which has prevented same-sex couples from marrying while the appeal is in process. A three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held a hearing in December, 2010 but the panel has not yet released a decision.

Proposition 8 supporters filed the motion to vacate Walker’s ruling this April, after Walker gave interviews to news organizations about his relationship.

Today’s ruling by Ware affirmed Walker’s eligibility to rule in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, but Walker’s ruling itself remains under appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

You can read Ware’s entire ruling here.

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