Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s City Attorney since 2002, will be in the Supreme Court chambers in Washington next Tuesday observing the oral arguments over whether Proposition 8, California’s 2008 ballot measure banning gay marriage, should be upheld or overturned.
Although Herrera won’t be delivering the arguments against Proposition 8 on Tuesday, gay rights advocates in California say he has played a pivotal role since 2004 in pushing for marriage equality in that state.
Among other things, he has worked side-by-side with high profile attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies as a party to the case Hollingsworth v. Perry, which seeks to overturn Prop 8.
Jack Song, deputy press secretary for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, said Herrera and his legal team have been involved in “every case, every court, through every procedural twist since February 2004” in efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in California.
It was in 2004, Song noted, that Herrera provided legal support for then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s highly controversial decision to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples and perform same-sex marriages at city hall.
California courts initially ruled that San Francisco lacked legal authority to perform same-sex marriages and quickly invalidated those marriages. But the action by Newsom and Herrera, which was denounced by same-sex marriage opponents, has been credited with triggering litigation by marriage equality advocates – including Herrera’s office — that led to the May 15, 2008 ruling by the California Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
In response to a campaign led by same-sex marriage opponents, California voters overturned same-sex marriage rights in the November 2008 referendum known as Prop 8 by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.
In an interview with the Washington Blade on Tuesday, Herrera discussed his work on the Prop 8 case – in the words of his deputy press secretary Song – as a “straight, devout Catholic, married man” who has championed the cause of marriage equality.
Washington Blade: What are your thoughts on the chances that Prop 8 will be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court?
Dennis Herrera: We’re very, very optimistic. You just need to look at what has been the course of this litigation. If we go back nine years ago, all the state court proceedings and more recently in the federal court system, I can’t tell you how gratified we were both at the District Court’s ruling and the Ninth Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals] ruling clearly showing that there’s absolutely no constitutional justification whatsoever to discriminate when it comes to the issue of marriage equality.
And that for the community to be denied equal protection under the law when it comes to the issue of marriage strains all credulity. So we’ve been gratified by the District Court’s ruling. If you look at Judge [Vaughn] Walker’s decision – a well-reasoned, well thought-out opinion after sitting through a weeks-long trial, hearing from a variety of witnesses and hearing the Prop 8 proponents come up with virtually no argument, no evidence to support their position and then to have that decision affirmed by the Ninth Circuit – we’re very, very optimistic as we’re heading into next week’s argument.
Blade: What role has your office played in the U.S. Supreme Court case on Prop 8?
Herrera: We intervened and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Gibson Dunn firm — the David Boise firm — both at trial and at the Ninth Circuit and here as we’re leading up to the Supreme Court argument. So we have been involved in every piece of state litigation on this as well as the federal action. In fact, we were the only party allowed to intervene in the case and participate on our side as a party. We have been working alongside the lead counsel in the case and continue to do so leading up to the [U.S. Supreme Court] arguments.
Blade: Could you explain as best you can in layman’s terms what we understand to be the possible outcomes by the Supreme Court? In one outcome they can uphold Proposition 8. But is the court also being asked to rule that under the U.S. Constitution, no state can ban same-sex couples from marrying?
Herrera: I think that what you see if you look at the briefs of the plaintiffs and ours – we’re very, very complimentary. Clearly the plaintiffs in the case, as represented by Ted Olsen and David Boies, are seeking the broadest possible remedy to strike down discrimination vis-a-vis marriage equality nationwide.
And if you look at our briefs, what we do is try and make sure that we offer the full panoply in a very complimentary way. We fully agree with Ted Olsen and Boies and support their contention that heightened scrutiny should apply in this case, which would essentially, if found in the plaintiff’s favor, would basically have nationwide impact. But in addition, we have argued in our brief, while we fully agree with them, that even if you limited it to California and states similarly situated to California — the prohibition on marriage should not apply. So it’s a more limited but complimentary approach. Just so the court has the full panoply of possible avenues before it. But we’re in full support of the broad argument, but if the court wants to rule in our favor but limit it to California and other states that are similar to California, we briefed that issue as well.
Blade: How would it affect other states that are similar to California?
Herrera: If you look at the [U.S.] Solicitor General’s brief, the government’s brief, they have essentially said that states like California that have extended domestic partner benefits that allow same-sex couples to adopt, those that have been out there granting rights to same-sex couples cannot take them away through tools like Proposition 8. So there’s about seven or eight states that are similarly situated to California. And they have come in and said for those states, not just California but for those others, you can’t take an approach like folks have done with Proposition 8.
Blade: Does that include states outside Ninth Circuit?
Blade: Some constitutional experts that study the Supreme Court, including some who support same-sex marriage, have argued that it would be better for the court to limit an affirmative decision to just California rather than issue a ruling that would require all states to recognize same-sex marriage. They say that a ruling forcing all states to legalize same-sex marriage would create too great a shock to the culture, especially in southern and certain mid-Western states. What are your thoughts on that?
Herrera: I have heard that. But, like I said, in this case we’re working along with the lead counsel and have really offered a variety of different directions the court should go. And I would like to say this. I know that people make that argument. But think about how things have changed.
Let’s just go back. Proposition 22 that passed here in California in 2000 was against marriage equality 60 to 40. And with Proposition 8 we saw what the numbers were [52 percent for Prop 8, 48 percent against]. Recently, on the same day that the federal government – the administration – came in support of our position there was a Field Poll released here in the State of California that showed that 61 percent of people now in California favor same-sex marriage as opposed to 32 percent. …
So I’m fully in support of a broader approach and I think that would be the best thing for the country. But if in its judgment the Supreme Court does not want to go that route we have offered them and the United States government has offered them another direction to go that perhaps might be more limited but ultimately we know is going to lead to the same result nationwide.
Blade: In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed marriages to take place at City Hall, you supported that, right?
Blade: But some lawmakers in Washington at the time, including Congressman Barney Frank, thought that might be jumping the gun a little bit and that it could lead to a greater push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. That never passed, but some were worried that it could. Was that something that entered your mind back then?
Herrera: I think history has borne out that we in San Francisco were on the right side of history when you look at the tremendous progress that has been made over the course of the last several years. So I think that sometimes it is somewhat scary for people to take the unconventional approach and to push the envelope. But I think that the wisdom of that approach has been borne out by history.