The Marriage Test

January 14, 2010

Los Angeles Times editorial

In what ways would same-sex marriages be the same as or different from heterosexual marriages? Answer: It’s nobody’s business.

Yet the matter was explored at length in court this week by an expert for the plaintiffs — the pro-gay-marriage group challenging Proposition 8. Homosexual couples are much the same as heterosexual couples, Letitia Peplau, a UCLA professor of social psychology, testified. They form relationships in which the closeness and stability measure as high.

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NCLR’s Legal Director Shannon Minter on Perry v Schwarzenegger Proceedings, Day 3

January 13, 2010

cross-posted from Pam’s House Blend

As other bloggers and news outlets have reported, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a final order today preventing the trial from being broadcast. The 5-4 opinion was unsigned, meaning that its authorship was not attributed to any one justice.  The court largely ducked the substantive issue of whether federal trials should be more accessible to a broader public, holding that the San Francisco district court judges had not followed the proper procedures when they amended the local court rules to allow the broadcast.  Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito were in the majority.

In a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Sotomayor, Justice Breyer challenged the majority’s interpretation of the rule-changing procedures and  strongly disputed that the broadcast would cause harm. Justice Breyer described the majority’s ruling as an “extraordinary intervention,””micromanaging” local court procedure, and stated that “the public interest weighs in favor of granting access to the courts.”

Although many had anticipated this outcome, it is deeply disappointing. As Geoff Kors of Equality California pointed out in his statement about the ruling, this trial presents an unprecedented opportunity to educate people across the country about our community and about why the Constitution requires that same-sex couples be given access to marriage. The public could only benefit from the opportunity to see firsthand that the arguments made by the proponents of Prop 8, both during the campaign and now in court, are so clearly false and demeaning. Those of us attending the trial will have to fill the gap by passing along as much of what we see and hear as we can. NCLR will continue to tweet live from the court – follow @NCLRights for frequent updates on testimony.

Trial resumed this morning with David Thompson’s cross-examination of Professor George Chauncey.  Thompson asked primarily about the progress LGBT people have made, politically and in popular culture, in the last 20 years.

In his cross, Thompson highlighted employment nondiscrimination bills, the increasing numbers of gay and lesbian elected officials, and the very recent increase in support for domestic partnerships and civil unions among national Democratic leaders.  He also focused on the increasing depiction of gay men and lesbians in popular culture, such as the TV series “Will and Grace” and films such as Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia.

Prof. Chauncey acknowledged that LGBT people have made progress. But he also stressed the limited nature of that progress and the persistence of severe discrimination and hostility toward gay people.  Even today, he noted, there are remarkably few films that include openly LGBT characters and a continued paucity of scholarship exploring the history and contemporary reality of LGBT lives (to mention just two examples).

Thompson’s questions were directed to an important legal issue in this case -whether systemic bias against lesbians and gay men prevents them from being treated by others as equal citizens in the political process.  In prior cases, federal courts have sometimes considered that issue in deciding whether to apply heightened scrutiny to laws that classify on the basis of a particular characteristic such as race, gender, religion, disability, age, and so forth.   If a court determines that widespread (and unjustified) bias prevents a group from being able to fully protect itself in the elected branches of government, it is more likely to find that the group should be afforded heightened constitutional protection under the federal equal protection clause.

On that score, it’s worth noting – and the Olson/Boies team will no doubt argue – that laws that discriminate on the basis of race are still subject to the strictest type of constitutional review, even though it’s been more than a half century since Brown v. Board of Education was decided and nearly half a century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Likewise, laws that discriminate based on sex are still subject to a heightened level of scrutiny even though a majority of the voting public are women.  By contrast, for example, there is still no federal statute prohibiting private employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation, despite decades of effort to get those protections passed.  And the federal government itself still openly discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation in federal military, marriage, and immigration law-as do the laws of most states.  By any measure, anti-gay bias continues to permeate our laws and culture.

After the cross-exam, Therese Stewart, attorney for the City of San Francisco, asked Professor Chauncey to analyze some of the messages used in the Yes on 8 campaign.  Stewart focused on statements made by one of the official proponents of Prop 8, Dr. Hak-Shing William (“Bill”) Tam. Stewart played excerpts of Dr. Tam’s deposition, featuring some extraordinarily inflammatory messages in campaign documents authored by Tam.

One of Dr. Tam’s publications claimed that if Prop 8 did not pass, other states would “fall into Satan’s hands.” The document also claimed that “more children would become homosexuals,” and that the next item on the “gay agenda” would be to “legalize having sex with children.”  Prof. Chauncey connected these messages, delivered by one of Prop 8’s official sponsors, with the long history of fear-mongering and demonization of lesbians and gay men that he eloquently described yesterday.

In the afternoon, the court heard testimony from social psychologist Anne Peplau, one of the country’s leading academic experts on couples and relationships.  Kudos to Christopher Dusseault of Gibson Dunn for his skillful handling of the direct and redirect of Professor Peplau.  His performance was a model of precision and highly effective.

Prof. Peplau offered four expert opinions: (1) most individuals who marry gain physical, psychological, and social benefits from being married; (2) the quality and stability of same-sex relationships are similar to those of heterosexual relationships; (3) if permitted to marry, same-sex couples will derive the same benefits from marriage as heterosexual couples; and (4) permitting same-sex couples to marry will not harm the institution of marriage in any way. These opinions disprove the defense’s argument that allowing same-sex couples to marry would fundamentally change and undermine marriage, and support the plaintiffs’ claim that marriage is a basic civil right that same-sex couples need and are entitled to.

During her cross of Prof. Peplau, attorney Nicole Moss tried to elicit an admission from Prof. Peplau that same-sex couples differ from heterosexual couples in some relevant way.  Prof. Peplau reiterated that there are no relevant differences.  But at Moss’s insistence, she did confirm that a lesbian couple cannot “accidentally” procreate a child through spontaneous generation-one of the few moments today that elicited universal laughter.

Tomorrow we will hear from three experts discussing the impact of marriage discrimination on our community.  Again, follow @NCLRights for a blow-by-blow from the court.


Watch Kate Kendell’s Report from the Frontlines of the Prop 8 Trial

January 13, 2010

NCLR’s Legal Director Shannon Minter on Perry v Schwarzenegger Proceedings, Day 2

January 12, 2010

cross-posted from Pam’s House Blend

The Perry plaintiffs had another great day in court. Professor Nancy Cott wrapped up her powerful testimony, which made three crucial points. First, Professor Cott provided a detailed historical account of how marriage restrictions based on race, ethnicity, and immigration status have been used “punitively” – to stigmatize and demean disfavored groups – in the same way that Prop 8 now stigmatizes same-sex couples. When these kinds of laws are enacted, she explained, many people believe they simply reflect “common sense” or God’s will. Only later is it fully apparent that they are in fact based on a failure to appreciate the full humanity of certain groups. The same is true of Prop 8.

Second, Professor Cott explained that in the past, marriage law imposed strict gender roles that sharply distinguished the legal rights and duties of wives and husbands. For example, at one time, married women were unable to sign legal documents or testify in court, because they were not considered to be individual citizens – once married, a woman had no legal identity apart from her husband. But today, the law recognizes that all adults should be given equal rights regardless of gender and should be able to choose for themselves how to allocate duties in a marriage. Because modern marriage law is gender-neutral in this way, permitting same-sex couples to marry doesn’t change the law’s basic structure.

Finally, Professor Cott showed that marriage has changed significantly over the years, and that most of those changes involve “shedding inequalities.” But the central function and purpose of marriage – to enable adults to create stable families that provide enormous benefits to the couple, to children, and to society – has endured. Professor Cott testified that based on the historical evidence, permitting same-sex couples would not undermine marriage, but instead would strengthen it. Both couples and the larger community would benefit.

The remainder of the morning was taken up by the cross-examination of Professor Cott by David Thompson, one of the lawyers defending Prop 8. Thompson’s approach was to take statements out of context from Professor Cott’s deposition testimony or from her publications, and to ask her if she agreed with them.

Even at then end of two grueling days of testimony, however, Professor Cott was a model of composure and sophistication. She was not rattled by Thompson’s aggressive questioning, and was particularly firm in stating her opinion that the fundamental purpose of marriage is to create stable families, not to require that all children be raised by both of their biological parents.

Overall, Thompson’s cross-examination strategy did not succeed in undermining Professor Cott’s testimony, and toward the end Judge Walker encouraged Thompson to speed it up. From a legal strategy perspective, it’s not clear why the defense chose to spend so much time asking Professor Cott about books and articles she had written, when all of those materials had already been put into evidence. While that approach might occasionally win some points in a jury trial, in this case the judge will decide the facts. In a nonjury case, it’s sufficient (and usually preferred) for the lawyers simply to read from articles and other documents that are in evidence in their closing arguments to the judge. Given that reality, the cross-examination of Prof. Cott seemed mostly to be a waste of time that did very little, if any, good for the defenders of Prop 8.

Last up today was expert witness Professor George Chauncey, a social historian from Yale University who specializes in lesbian and gay history. He is best known for his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic, 1994), which won a number of scholarly awards. He is also the author of Why Marriage? The History Shaping Today’s Debate over Gay Equality.

Professor Chauncey testified about how government discrimination has created and perpetuated anti-gay stereotypes like those relied on by the Yes on 8 campaign. He described how criminal laws have been used to penalize same-sex intimacy and to stigmatize gay people as inherently criminal. Professor Chauncey also detailed the long history of discrimination against gay people in public accommodations – for example, for much of the twentieth century, bars were legally prohibited from serving gay patrons and often sported signs saying, for example, “gays go away” or “it is unlawful to serve homosexuals.”

Perhaps most chillingly, Professor Chauncey described deliberate government campaigns in the 1950s to demonize gay people as dangerous sexual deviants and child molesters. Those campaigns included an executive order by President Eisenhower directing the federal government to identify and fire all gay federal workers – and also requiring private businesses with government contracts to do the same. In the words of one federal publication from the 1950s, “one homosexual can ruin an entire government office.” State governments – including California — adopted similar campaigns, churning out official reports and “public education” materials labeling gay men as violent, psychopathic predators who posed a grave threat to children and families.

Toward the end of the afternoon, Professor Chauncey analyzed several videos and printed brochures used by the Yes on 8 campaign to show how they incorporated many of the same demonizing messages – particularly about the supposed need to “protect” children from gay people. For example, he explained that some of the Yes on 8 campaign messages were “a strong echo of the idea that simple exposure to gay people and gay relationships is somehow going to cause a whole generation to become gay.” Professor Chauncey’s testimony provided a powerful historical validation of yesterday’s testimony from Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, both of whom described their personal experience of feeling vilified by the Yes on 8 campaign messages.

Judge Walker continues to keep this case moving, repeatedly urging counsel on both sides to “pick up the pace,” while making sure that all witnesses have ample opportunity to share their views. He deserves considerable credit for giving this enormously important and complex case the close attention and careful managing it deserves. Tomorrow, we will hear more from Professor Chauncey and additional witnesses for the plaintiffs’ side.


NCLR’s Legal Director Shannon Minter on Perry v Schwarzenegger Proceedings, Day 1

January 11, 2010

cross-posted from Pam’s House Blend

From the first moment to the closing bell, Judge Walker moved the proceedings forward at a rapid clip. It was a great day for our side, spiced with some intriguing hints from Judge Walker about how he may be viewing some of the key legal issues in the case. Ted Olson and San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart gave eloquent opening statements. Both plaintiff couples presented emotional and moving testimony during their examinations and cross-examinations. And by the end of the day, the plaintiff’s first expert witness (the distinguished American history scholar, Professor Nancy Cott) had made significant headway through her testimony, showing that that marriage has never been universally defined as a union of one man and one woman, and that religion has never had any bearing on the legality of a marriage.

Even as attorneys, clients, and spectators were filling up the courtroom early this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a disappointing but temporary order blocking any video or audio transmission of the trial at least until Wednesday. On Wednesday, the full court will issue a more considered (and permanent) opinion.  Judge Vaughn Walker took the first few minutes of today’s trial to note the Supreme Court’s ruling and express his hope that this case would call attention to the larger issue of the public’s right to access judicial proceedings-and the need to update the meaning of that right in light of new technologies.

According to Judge Walker, the court received more than 138,000 comments on the proposed broadcasting, and all but 32 were in favor of allowing the public to view delayed broadcasts of the trial.  At the request of the plaintiffs’ attorneys (and over the objections of attorneys for the Proponents of Prop 8), the judge agreed to record today’s session so that it can be broadcast if the Supreme Court rules favorably on Wednesday.

Judge Walker took an active role from the very beginning of opening statements, grilling Ted Olson and defense attorney Charles Cooper, who represents the official sponsors of Prop 8, on many details of their arguments for and against Prop 8.  Although it’s highly unusual for a judge to interrupt opening statements during a jury trial, in this case there is no jury.  Judge Walker will decide both the factual questions and the legal issues in the case, so he is free to ask questions whenever he likes.  The judge’s questions to both the lawyers and the witnesses showed that he will not be content to just sit back and listen during this trial.  He clearly has spent a lot of time studying the issues, and we can expect that he will continue to ask lots of tough questions of both sides as the trial progresses.

Several of the judge’s questions today focused on whether the Constitution would allow California to decide that it wants to get out of the marriage business altogether – whether the state could decide to stop issuing marriage licenses and have only domestic partnership for all couples.   It’s risky to read too much into a judge’s questions, especially so early in the trial.  But the judge’s questions may indicate that he is thinking about what will happen if he declares Prop 8 unconstitutional.  Will he have to order the state to issue marriage licenses to all couples, or could he leave it up to the state to decide whether it wants to let same-sex couples marry or just stop issuing marriage licenses to anyone?

The most moving testimony today was presented by the two plaintiff couples. Each of the four plaintiffs testified about their experiences growing up gay or lesbian, how they met and fell in love, how they were affected by the Prop 8 campaign, and why they want to marry.  Both Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami testified about how painful and insulting it was to be cast as a threat to children by the Yes on 8 campaign.  Paul (the only plaintiff to be cross-examined) held his ground in the face of aggressive questioning by an attorney for the proponents of Prop 8, Brian Raum. Raum repeatedly pushed Paul to “admit” that the campaign’s false and inflammatory claims about children were somehow based on legitimate parental concerns.  But Paul handled the ordeal with grace, consistently refusing to be drawn in by Raum’s simplistic and misleading premises.

Plaintiff Kristin Perry, who has worked in the field of child development and child protection for local and state governments in California for 25 years, testified about raising four children with her life partner Sandra Stier.  Despite her obvious reluctance to expose such an intensely painful and private aspect of her life, Kristin also spoke about the heartbreak of having married in San Francisco in 2004, only to have the California Supreme Court invalidate the marriage.  She also explained that she hesitated to marry again after the California Supreme Court’s 2008 decision because she feared that marriage would be invalidated as well.  Kristin testified about growing up in Bakersfield, constantly being made to feel different and inferior because she was a lesbian. If Prop 8 could be undone, Kristin testified, “kids like me growing up in Bakersfield could never know what that felt like, their entire lives would be on a higher arc, it would improve the entire quality of their life.”

Last up today was the plaintiffs’ first expert witness, Professor Nancy Cott, who teaches American history at Harvard and previously taught at Yale for 26 years.  She specializes in the history of women, gender, the family and marriage, and is the author of the book “Public Vows,” a history of marriage in the United States.

Defense attorney Charles Cooper had claimed in his opening statement that marriage has been “universally” defined, across time and cultures, as the union of one man and one woman. Asked to comment about Cooper’s statement, Professor Cott responded in no uncertain terms that it was historically inaccurate.  She also noted that while religion has played a role in many Americans’ ideas about marriage, our civil laws, not religion, have always defined marriage in the United States.

Discussing the social meaning of marriage in America, Professor Cott testified that although most people think of marriage as a private choice, it also has a public aspect.  For example, slaves in America were unable to get married partly because they were not considered citizens, and therefore had no legal right to give their consent to enter into a marriage.  After emancipation, former slaves flocked to get married, because they now enjoyed this basic civil right for the first time.  As Professor Cott explained, the right to marry is an essential element of being treated as an equal citizen.

Professor Cott’s testimony will continue tomorrow (January 12, 2010).  No doubt each day’s proceedings will be the subject of intense interest.  Of course, only time will tell whether the Perry case will lead to a ruling that restores the equal citizenship of same-sex couples in California.


California Couples Tell of Gay Marriage Ban’s Toll

January 11, 2010

by Lisa Leff and Paul Elias | Associated Press

Two same-sex couples gave intimate accounts of their private and public lives Monday during the opening day of a highly anticipated federal trial to decide the constitutionality of state bans on gay marriage, at times tearfully testifying about moments of awkwardness, disappointment and shame that they said resulted from their inability to legally wed.

“I’ve been in love with a woman for 10 years, and I don’t have access to a word for it,” said Kristin Perry, 45, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the voter initiative that outlawed gay marriage in California. “You chose them over everybody else, and you want to feel that it is going to stick and that you are going to have the protection and support and inclusion that comes from letting people know you feel that way.”

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The Conscience of a Conservative

January 11, 2010

by Eve Conant | Newsweek

Ted Olson would seem the unlikeliest champion of gay marriage. Now 69 years old, he is one of the more prominent Republicans in Washington, and among the most formidable conservative lawyers in the country. As head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Ronald Reagan, he argued for ending racial preferences in schools and hiring, which he saw—and still sees—as a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. Years later, he advised Republicans in their efforts to impeach President Clinton. In 2000 he took the “Bush” side in Bush v. Gore, out-arguing his adversary (and friend) David Boies before the Supreme Court and ushering George W. Bush into the White House. As solicitor general under Bush, he defended the president’s claims of expanded wartime powers. (Olson’s wife at the time, Barbara, died on American Airlines Flight 77, which was crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.) Olson has won three quarters of the 56 cases he has argued before the high court. Feather quills commemorating each case, and signed thank-you photos from presidents, cover the walls of his Washington office.

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