A Brilliant Ruling
Judge Walker's decision to overturn Prop 8 is factual, well-reasoned, and powerful.
Judge Vaughn R. Walker is not Anthony Kennedy. But when the chips are down, he certainly knows how to write like him. I count—in his opinion today —seven citations to Justice Kennedy's 1996 opinion in Romer v. Evans (striking down an anti-gay Colorado ballot initiative) and eight citations to his 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas (striking down Texas' gay-sodomy law). In a stunning decision this afternoon, finding California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative banning gay marriage unconstitutional, Walker trod heavily on the path Kennedy has blazed on gay rights: "[I]t would demean a married couple were it to be said marriage is simply about the right to have sexual intercourse," quotes Walker."'[M]oral disapproval, without any other asserted state interest,' has never been a rational basis for legislation," cites Walker. *"Animus towards gays and lesbians or simply a belief that a relationship between a man and a woman is inherently better than a relationship between two men or two women, this belief is not a proper basis on which to legislate," Walker notes, with a jerk of the thumb at Kennedy.
Justice Kennedy? Hot sauce to go with those words?
But for all the lofty language about freedom and morality, nobody can fairly accuse Judge Walker of putting together an insubstantial or unsubstantiated opinion today. Indeed, the whole point of this legal exercise—the lengthy trial, the spectacularly detailed finding of facts (80 of them! with subheadings!)—was to pit expert against expert, science against science, and fact against prejudice.
It's hard to read Judge Walker's opinion without sensing that what really won out today was science, methodology, and hard work. Had the proponents of Prop 8 made even a minimal effort to put on a case, to track down real experts, to do more than try to assert their way to legal victory, this would have been a closer case. But faced with one team that mounted a serious effort and another team that did little more than fire up their big, gay boogeyman screensaver for two straight weeks, it wasn't much of a fight. Judge Walker scolds them at the outset for promising in their trial brief to prove that same-sex marriage would "effect some twenty-three harmful consequences" and then putting on almost no case.
Walker notes that the plaintiffs presented eight lay witnesses and nine expert witnesses, including historians, economists, psychologists, and a political scientist. Walker lays out their testimony in detail. Then he turns to the proponents' tactical decision to withdraw several of their witnesses, claiming "extreme concern about their personal safety" and unwillingness to testify if there were to be "recording of any sort." Even when it was determined that there would be no recording, counsel declined to call them. They were left with two trial witnesses, one of whom, David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values, the judge found "lacks the qualifications to offer opinion testimony and, in any event, failed to provide cogent testimony in support of proponent's factual assertions." Blankenhorn's credentials, methodology, lack of peer-reviewed studies, and general shiftiness on cross examination didn't impress Walker. And once he was done with Blankenhorn, he turned to the only other witness—Kenneth P. Miller—who testified only to the limited question of the plaintiffs' political power. Walker wasn't much more impressed by Miller, giving his opinions "little weight."
Then come the elaborate "findings of fact"—and recall that appellate courts must defer far more to a judge's findings of fact than conclusions of law. Here is where Judge Walker knits together the trial evidence, to the data, to the nerves at the very base of Justice Kennedy's brain. Among his most notable determinations of fact, Walker finds: states have long discriminated in matters of who can marry; marital status affects immigration, citizenship, tax policy, property and inheritance rules, and benefits programs; that individuals do not choose their own sexual orientation; California law encourages gay couples to become parents; domestic partnership is a second-class legal status; permitting same-sex couples to marry does not affect the number of opposite-sex couples who marry, divorce, cohabit, or otherwise screw around. He found that it benefits the children of gay parents to have them be married and that the gender of a child's parent is not a factor in a child's adjustment. He found that Prop 8 puts the force of law behind a social stigma and that the entirety of the Prop 8 campaign relied on instilling fears that children exposed to the concept of same-sex marriage may become gay. (Brand-new data show that the needle only really moved in favor of the Prop 8 camp when parents of young children came out in force against gay marriage in the 11th hour of the campaign.) He found that stereotypes targeting gays and lesbians have resulted in terrible disadvantages for them and that the Prop 8 campaign traded on those stereotypes.
And then Walker turned to his conclusions of law, finding that under both the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses:
Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. 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.
Is that the end of it? Oh, no. Judge Walker is already being flayed alive for the breadth and boldness of his decision. The appeals road will be long and nasty. Walker has temporarily stayed the ruling pending argument on a stay. (Rick Hasen argues it may be wise for him to stay the order pending appeal for tactical reasons.) Any way you look at it, today's decision was written for a court of one—Kennedy—the man who has written most eloquently about dignity and freedom and the right to determine one's own humanity. The real triumph of Perry v. Schwarzenegger may be that it talks in the very loftiest terms about matters rooted in logic, science, money, social psychology, and fact.
Correction, Aug. 8, 2010: This line was erroneously attributed to Anthony Kennedy. It was actually written by Sandra Day O'Connor. (Return to the paragraph.) Watch the reaction to the verdict from Proposition 8 plaintiffs:
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.