September 6, 2011 at 1:25 pm EDT | by Phil Reese
Prop 8 opponents: Calif. civilians can’t defend case against state

Today the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether or not under state law civilian supporters can take the place of the state, specifically in the Federal case challenging anti-marriage equality Proposition 8.

The hour long hearing was followed by press conferences in which both sides expressed pleasure in the outcome. The court, however, still has 90 days to come to a decision, and both opponents and supporters of Proposition 8 will be watching closely for any indication that that decision is ready.

In August of last year, Federal Court Judge Vaughn Walker found unconstitutional Proposition 8, the law barring marriage between two adults of the same sex created after a November 2008 ballot measure, ruling in favor of plaintiffs represented by the organization American Foundation for Equal Rights. The attorneys leading the charge against the law are former President Bush solicitor general Ted Olson, and former Al Gore lawyer David Boies who in 2000 faced off in Bush v. Gore. While plaintiffs are seeking to restore marriage equality to California, proponents of the measure are attempting to appeal Judge Walker’s ruling.

The 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals put the case, Perry v. Brown (formerly Perry v. Schwarzenegger) on hold in January after both Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris refused to defend the law in court citing their own constitutional objections. When concerned citizen groups hoping to keep the law on the books attempted to fill in for the state to defend the law, the 9th Circuit asked the California Supreme Court to rule on whether or not the concerned groups can in fact defend the law in place of the state. The legal principle at question is “standing,” which defines as “the right to file a lawsuit or file a petition under the circumstances.”

Though the 9th Circuit will make the ultimate decision, the appeals certified a question to the State Supreme Court of California on whether state law allows proponents of the ballot initiative to have the right to represent the state in the appeal in place of the state officials themselves. In February the California Supreme Court agreed to address the 9th Circuit’s question which led to today’s hearing.

If the State Supreme Court decides that the interest groups — which include a well-funded conservative website called — can indeed take the place of the state in defending the law, the 9th Circuit is expected to follow the guidance, allowing the case to proceed through the 9th Circuit despite the non-involvement of any agents of the state. Likewise, if the California Supreme Court decides against the proponents of Proposition 8, the 9th Circuit is expected to concur, which will end the appeals process at Judge Walker’s decision overturning the law.

The Proposition 8 ballot measure was passed in reaction to a decision by the California Supreme Court earlier in 2008 overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, which allowed roughly 18,000 same-sex couples to marry in California during the short window prior to the election. The Supreme Court has since upheld those marriages as valid, though new marriages can not be recognized as a consequence of the proposition. The state also passed a law following the passage of Prop 8 that allows the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed outside of California during that same short window.

Arguing for the proponents of Prop 8, Charles Cooper argued that the interest groups would be given standing if this were a state court case, while Justices weighed whether or not the same standard ought to apply in this Federal Court matter.

Ted Olson (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Ted Olson, arguing for the plaintiffs, focused on the lack of precedent for such an intervention by an interest group, and claimed finding in favor of the Prop 8 proponents and granting their right to appeal would mean, essentially “amending” the California Constitution. He also argued that allowing Prop 8 proponents to take the place of the state in the case would set a dangerous precedent undermining the authority of the California Attorney General to make such decisions.

“Initiative proponents are elected by no one,” Olson told the justices, as reported by Adam Bink of Courage Campaign and Kate Kendell of the Center for Lesbian Rights. “Proponents took no oath to represent the people.”

When asked what the particular interest the proponents of Prop 8 had in continuing to defend the case, Charles Cooper responded to the justices, “Our interest is to protect and defend our fundamental right to propose initiatives. We have to defend that.”

In response, the justices asked “Doesn’t that right arise before the initiative is qualified?”

“This court has never recognized any distinction between before and after enactment,” Cooper responded. “That wouldn’t make any sense. What the proponents have a right to do is propose valid constitutional amendments. It is inescapable that they then have the right to defend that measure, before OR after enactment.”

However, before his time expired, Ted Olson did his best to counter Cooper’s claims.

“They sure spent a great deal of time and money, and exercised their power to ‘propose and enact.’ What they’re asking for is the power to represent themselves because of a particularized interest, which they don’t have,” Olson argued. “My understanding of California law and case law is that the legislature doesn’t have the power to defend legislation in court unless it specifically deals with the legislative power itself. There is no case, and Cooper agrees there is no case, in which the legislature has the power the proponents are claiming here. I think the initiative power is important, but the constitution of California fundamentally limits the power of the initiative and initiative proponents to exercise their right to propose and defend, that’s it.”

After the hearing, representatives from the American Foundation for Equal Rights were confident and expressed pleasure with the hearing.

“Good justices ask hard questions,” Olson said after the hearing, according to Bink and the Courage Campaign. Olson expressed pleasure with the Supreme Court justices, but emphasized he believes that no matter which direction the Supreme Court decides, the opponents of Prop 8 will prevail.

“We’re sure the US Supreme Court will agree with us,” Olson concluded.

Legal Director from Lambda Legal, Jon Davidson seemed to concur.

“It is often impossible to predict from the questions asked by appellate judges how they will rule and today was no different,” Davidson said in a statement. “All of the judges on the California Supreme Court asked probing questions and seemed concerned about the implications of any decision they might make. We continue to hope that the Court will ultimately decide that small groups of unelected individuals who are answerable to no one should not be able to act on behalf of the state.”

However, Shannon Minter legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who has argued before the California Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage, struck a more cautious tone when discussing her reaction to the hearing with veteran LGBT community journalist, Karen Ocamb.

“I was concerned by the tenor of many of the justices’ questions today,” Minter told Ocamb. “The court has a responsibility to enforce the California Constitution, which gives elected state officials—not private initiative sponsors—the authority to decide whether to appeal a federal court decision invalidating a state law.”

Minter continued, “Both conservative and progressive elected officials have occasionally exercised that discretion in the past by choosing not to expend state resources to defend invalidated measures. Permitting special interest groups to usurp that decision-making authority would dramatically change the current law and take a giant step down the road of turning California into a mobocracy.”

Minter expressed concern that a decision in favor of the Prop 8 proponents could have far reaching effects, going beyond just LGBT issues.

“I was disappointed that, with some notable exceptions, too many of the court’s questions today did not address the specific legal questions before them, but rather seemed to glorify the initiative process in the abstract and to abdicate a searching examination of the California Constitution in favor of emotional appeals to ‘the people.’ The initiative process is already frequently misused to target vulnerable groups, due in part to the Court’s past reluctance to enforce any meaningful limits on the process, even when those limits are mandated by the California Constitution,” Minter concluded.

“I sincerely hope the Court does not compound that mistake by now giving initiative proponents an unprecedented new power to step outside of their proper legislative role and usurp the power that our Constitution gives only to elected state officials in the executive branch.”


1 Comment
  • I believe the last sentence of the last paragraph should read: “… the constitution of California fundamentally limits the power of the initiative and initiative proponents to exercise their right to propose and ENACT, that’s it.”

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