Gay marriage proponents court trouble in San Francisco.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 1 2004 4:40 PM

Courting Trouble

A story of love, marriage, and litigation strategy.

The California Supreme Court appears poised to hold that the City and County of San Francisco exceeded its delegated authority when it issued more than 4,000 California marriage licenses to same-sex couples earlier this year. Supporters of same-sex marriage will be understandably disappointed, but given the poor timing and framing of the dispute, this is probably the best outcome we could have expected.

In a perfect world of Herculean judges, impervious to political fallout and immune to emotional appeals, it wouldn't matter how and when issues of social justice reached the courts; even unsympathetic litigants with bad timing would prevail if the abstract legal principle they sought to vindicate was just. But in the real world, timing and framing matter as much for civil rights as for garden-variety political fights.

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Case in point: In Massachusetts, same-sex couples are now receiving valid marriage licenses. That's because in Massachusetts, unlike in San Francisco, proponents of same-sex marriage took their time and did what the civil rights lawyers who win cases usually do: They identified a sympathetic court and political climate, carefully selected a compelling plaintiff, litigated the constitutional issue in court, and secured a judicial victory. Indeed, Mary Bonauto, the attorney who led the litigation team in Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Health, put her fingers to the political winds and waited for years until she felt the climate was right to argue that the commonwealth's constitution required Massachusetts to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Advocates in San Francisco, by contrast, eager to beat Boston to the altar, blundered into court in the worst posture imaginable. Recall that San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on the plausible but untested legal theory that the California Constitution requires it. By jumping the gavel and issuing the marriage licenses before a court could decide that issue, the city ultimately found itself in court with several avoidable handicaps.

1) The city's actions provoked the state attorney general to sue, handing the advantage to opponents of same-sex marriage by letting them—as plaintiffs—drive the litigation. Contrast Massachusetts, where the friends of same-sex marriage chose the battle and set the agenda.

2) Ideally the case would have involved a sympathetic gay couple with compelling personal circumstances that would highlight the injustice of California's "straights only" marriage laws. Not so in the California case. In fact, as its caption suggests, Lockyer v. San Francisco doesn't involve a gay couple at all; instead it's the city of San Francisco carrying the torch for same-sex marriage. This deprived the pro-marriage camp of potentially its most powerful weapon—a human face and story to move judicial and public opinion in its favor. Sure, judges are supposed to be immune to emotional appeals, but actually they are, believe it or not, human like the rest of us. And even those judges who are immune to human drama are not immune to popular opinion (especially in California where Supreme Court justices, like governors, can be recalled by popular vote—remember Rose Bird?). As law professor Michael Klarman points out, judges are not trailblazers: They typically forge ahead to create new legal rights only when public opinion is hard on their heels. Even the "activist" Warren Court was only a baby step out in front of national public opinion when it issued its famous civil rights opinion in Brown v. Board of Education. The best civil rights lawyers know that a plaintiff who captures the hearts and minds of the public can do a lot to indirectly influence the outcome of a close case.

3) Unlike the well-planned Massachusetts case in which the constitutional issue was front and center, the San Francisco contretemps raised a legal issue that had nothing to do with civil rights for gay couples: Can a local official essentially rewrite state law to conform to his own untested interpretation of a constitutional provision?  The red flag was already in the air when the California Supreme Court declined to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the California marriage law altogether, instead limiting argument to the narrow issue of whether the city had exceeded its authority in issuing the marriage licenses. Many same-sex marriage supporters accused the court of ducking the real issue. But the court is not to blame. It's sound judicial practice to avoid confronting constitutional questions whenever possible. The city's actions raised a narrower, nonconstitutional ground on which to decide the case at bar—the court predictably and appropriately limited its deliberations to that ground.

And it's lucky for same-sex marriage proponents, too. Having failed to lay the groundwork for a successful case, it's not surprising they'll find California to be infertile soil for same-sex marriage. Had the Supreme Court heard the constitutional issue, it would most likely have held that the constitution does not require the state to allow same-sex marriages—a precedent that, once firmly established, would most likely endure for decades. Grasping for the gay rights movement's Brown v. Board of Education, they might have achieved its Plessy v. Ferguson. Because the court limited its deliberations to the narrow issue, the worst (and most likely) possible consequence will be a decision finding that the city exceeded its authority by issuing California marriage licenses in contravention of California law. This will not prejudice later and better-situated litigants from challenging the constitutionality of the marriage law directly.

No doubt many supporters of gay rights find all this hand-wringing about timing and strategy infuriating. We're talking about civil rights here. Justice delayed is justice denied. Did Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall wait around and test the political winds before litigating for racial justice? Well, actually, they did. Houston and other civil rights lawyers considered challenging public school segregation as early as the 1920s, but proceeded slowly and deliberately. The important civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s were the result of elaborately planned cases, with carefully selected plaintiffs, brought in venues with judges known to be sympathetic to racial justice.

So let's compare and contrast: By taking the slow and arduous path of careful, strategically savvy civil rights litigation, Massachusetts pro-marriage advocates secured a bulletproof victory and put their opponents on the run. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was forced into the embarrassing position of asking the court to delay the implementation of its marriage holding while the legislature drummed up support for a constitutional amendment—a request the court predictably, correctly, and unceremoniously rejected. Now, in a last-ditch attempt to keep Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of same-sex weddings, the governor is threatening to apply a 1913 law denying marriage licenses to couples who could not be married in their states of residence. By exhuming this happily long-forgotten law, enacted to protect the antimiscegenation status quo of neighboring states from interracial couples who could legally marry in Massachusetts, the governor is proving one of the marriage advocates' central points: that opposition to same-sex marriage bears an uncomfortable resemblance to racism.