Attorneys for Bishop Harry Jackson, the minister who has led efforts to kill D.C.’s same-sex marriage law, filed a petition last week asking the U.S. Supreme to weigh in on whether the city should allow voters to decide whether to overturn the law.
In a filing known as a petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Jackson’s attorneys asked the high court to allow Jackson and six others to appeal a decision earlier this year by the D.C. Court of Appeals rejecting their lawsuit seeking to force the city to hold a ballot measure on the marriage law.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who has been praised for his strongly worded briefs defending the same-sex marriage law in court, has yet to say whether the city will file a brief opposing Jackson’s Supreme Court petition.
City officials, including presumptive Mayor-elect Vincent Gray, have said they remain strongly supportive of the same-sex marriage law and would martial all the needed resources to defend it if the Supreme Court agrees to take Jackson’s case.
Supreme Court rules say briefs opposing a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari are not mandatory. One gay rights attorney said opposing parties often don’t file opposition briefs if they believe the high court is unlikely to approve a certiorari petition.
“I would think Peter Nickles might still write something,” said gay rights attorney Mark Levine. “But he may choose not to.”
Spokespersons for Nickles and the mayor’s office did immediately respond to calls asking if the city plans to file an opposition brief on the case.
The city has 30 days to file an opposing brief.
Four of the nine Supreme Court justices are needed to approve a petition for certiorari, which allows a case to come before the court for consideration on its merits. The court turns down the overwhelming majority of cases that come before it through petitions of certiorari, according to information posted on the court’s website.
Should the court agree to take the case, five of the nine justices are needed to issue a ruling in Jackson’s favor by overturning the appeals court decision.
Levine said it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court would agree to take the case, although he said its past rulings on some controversial cases have surprised legal observers.
The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that the city’s Board of Elections and Ethics was correct in disqualifying Jackson’s proposed ballot measure seeking to overturn the same-sex marriage law. The election board cited a city law governing voter initiatives and referenda that it said prohibits the city from holding such a ballot measure because, if approved, it would violate the D.C. Human Rights Act’s ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Jackson and his attorneys argue that the law restricting ballot measures that go against provisions in the D.C. Human Rights Act is invalid because it violates the city’s Home Rule Charter, which Congress passed in the early 1970s.
The election board and a D.C. Superior Court judge rejected that claim as did the Court of Appeals. Each said the ballot measure restriction doesn’t violate the Home Rule Charter.
In March, before the appeals court issued its decision on the case, Jackson’s lawyers filed an emergency motion asking the Supreme Court to issue a stay preventing the same-sex marriage law from taking effect until the appeals court ruled on the matter.
Chief Justice John Roberts denied the request for a stay, saying Jackson and others opposed to the marriage law could not show that they could win the case on its merits, or that allowing the law to take effect would cause them irreparable harm at that time.
However, Roberts said in his three-page ruling that Jackson’s argument that the city acted improperly by denying a request for a ballot measure on grounds that it would violate the Human Rights Act “has some force.”
That comment by Roberts has led to speculation by legal experts that the Chief Justice might give at least some consideration to supporting a petition that the Supreme Court take the case, even though the court has a longstanding history of deferring to lower courts on matters that don’t relate to the U.S. constitution or to federal law.
In a comment that same-sex marriage supporters viewed as a hopeful sign, Roberts also stated in his ruling in March that Congress had full authority to prevent the city from adopting its law prohibiting ballot measures that violate the Human Rights Act, but Congress chose not to do so.
Nickles, who wrote the city’s briefs defending the same-sex marriage law against Jackson’s lawsuit, has argued that the law barring ballot measure that violate the Human Rights Act was adopted in full compliance with the Home Rule Charter. He noted that Congress’s decision not to overturn either the ballot measure law or the same-sex marriage law shows there is no federal or constitutional interest in either law and Jackson has no grounds for asking the courts to overturn it.
The Supreme Court is not expected to announce its decision on whether or not to take Jackson’s case until sometime next year.
In addition to Jackson, the individuals that signed on to the petition seeking Supreme Court intervention in the case include Ward 5 ANC Commissioner Robert King, local minister Anthony Evans, former D.C. congressional delegate Walter Fauntroy, Dale Wafer, Melvin Dupree, and Howard Butler.
The group is being represented by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative religious-oriented litigation group that has challenged same-sex marriages laws in other states.
“Today’s petition by Bishop Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court is nothing more than a last-ditch attempt by outside interests to try to eliminate marriage equality in the District,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement last week. “Every court that has reviewed this case, including two D.C. Superior Court judges and the full Court of Appeals, has found Jackson’s arguments to be without merit,” he said. “The Council and mayor, representing District residents, overwhelmingly approved legislation providing for marriage equality. And we will remain vigilant against any efforts to take it away.”
(Jackson photo is a Blade file photo by Michael Key)