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Highlights from the Prop. 8 Trial Judge's Decision

By L.K. Regan

The federal judge hearing the Proposition 8 trial in San Francisco has reached a verdict: the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. constitution. This is only a first victory, as the judge’s decision has already been stayed pending appeal—appeals that are widely expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. But Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s decision, issued yesterday afternoon, is a barn-burner of an opinion, in which the judge eviscerates the logic opposing gay marriage. Below, some highlights from the judge’s intensely argued decision.

The judge heard the evidence on two grounds: that Prop. 8 violated gay people’s constitutional right to due process under the law; and that the law violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. constitution. Overall, he found that, “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.”

In forming that conclusion, Judge Walker looked at several ways that Prop. 8 violated constitutional protections. First, he found that “the freedom to marry is recognized as a fundamental right protected by the Due Process Clause,” and that the withholding of this right has a material impact on gay couples: “Proposition 8 increases costs and decreases wealth for same-sex couples because of increased tax burdens, decreased availability of health insurance and higher transactions costs to secure rights and obligations typically associated with marriage.” Judge Walker also described less material though no less painful effects of Prop. 8’s discrimination: “Proposition 8 singles out gays and lesbians and legitimates their unequal treatment. Proposition 8 perpetuates the stereotype that gays and lesbians are incapable of forming long-term loving relationships and that gays and lesbians are not good parents…. Proposition 8 results in frequent reminders for gays and lesbians in committed long-term relationships that their relationships are not as highly valued as opposite-sex relationships.”

Judge Walker addressed several specific arguments from the pro-8 camp in his decision. One of these arguments pertained to the state’s supposed interest in biological procreation, and functional families. The judge was brutal in his dismissal of these arguments, primarily by summarizing the trial evidence. “The court posed to proponents’ counsel the assumption 
that “the state’s interest in marriage is procreative” and inquired how permitting same-sex marriage impairs or adversely affects that interest. Counsel replied that the inquiry was ‘not the legally relevant question,’ but when pressed for an answer, counsel replied: ‘Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.’” Judge Walker also discounted the testimony of the pro-8 team’s lead witness, David Blankenhorn, a self-proclaimed marriage expert: “Blankenhorn offered opinions on the definition of marriage, the ideal family structure and potential consequences of state recognition of marriage for same-sex couples. None of Blankenhorn’s opinions is reliable.”

Having dispatched the “harm to marriage and families” argument, Judge Walker took on the idea that domestic partnerships provide a parallel and equal option to marriage. “The availability of domestic partnership does not provide gays and lesbians with a status equivalent to marriage because the cultural meaning of marriage and its associated benefits are intentionally withheld from same-sex couples in domestic partnerships.” And, more sharply: “The evidence at trial shows that domestic partnerships exist solely to differentiate same-sex unions from marriages. A domestic partnership is not a marriage; while domestic
 partnerships offer same-sex couples almost all of the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage, the evidence shows that the withholding of the designation 'marriage' significantly disadvantages plaintiffs."

Ultimately, Judge Walker’s opinion leaves no room for differentiating same and opposite-sex couples. “Same-sex couples are identical to opposite-sex couples in the characteristics relevant to the ability to form successful marital unions,” the decision reads. “Like opposite-sex couples, same-sex couples have happy, satisfying relationships and form deep emotional bonds and strong commitments to their partners. Standardized measures of relationship satisfaction, relationship adjustment and love do not differ depending on whether a couple is same-sex or opposite-sex.” Therefore, Judge Walker wrote, the implications are clear: “Proposition 8 cannot withstand any level of scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, as excluding same-sex couples from marriage is simply not rationally related to a legitimate state interest. The tradition of restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples does not further any state interest. Rather, the evidence shows that Proposition 8 harms the state’s interest in equality, because it mandates that men and women be treated differently based only on antiquated and discredited notions of gender.”

It’s a long road ahead—but a bright beginning.