by Evan Wolfson, Executive Director of Freedom to Marry, and author of Why Marriage Matters
Posted March 30, 2009 | 11:27 AM (EST) on The Huffington Post
If the March 5 oral argument before the California Supreme Court was any guide (which oral argument isn’t always), Chief Justice Ronald George may be on the verge of making a terrible, heartbreaking mistake.
The Court is due to rule soon on a set of challenges to Proposition 8, the November ballot-measure that stripped the freedom to marry away from committed same-sex couples. The challenges are supported by preeminent African-American, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific civil rights organizations; cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles; teachers and child-welfare professionals; religious leaders; businesses and labor unions; and advocates for same-sex couples and their families. All of them have asked the Court to uphold the bedrock principle of American constitutional government that a simple majority may not selectively vote away a fundamental right from a minority targeted for invidious, suspect reasons.
Most who saw the oral argument perceived Chief Justice George and Justice Joyce Kennard as straining to justify their apparently likely votes to uphold Prop 8. Their barrage of hostile questions and comments suggested that the civil rights advocates were asking the Court to, in Justice Kennard’s words, “willy-nilly disregard the will of the people.” But in fact the Constitution — itself the “ultimate expression of the people’s will,” as Chief Justice George recalled in 2008 — spells out two separate procedures for change: one for ordinary “amendments,” the other for more significant “revisions” such as Prop 8. Revisions, the Constitution says, require a more deliberate, careful process including review and a greater-than-mere majority vote by the Legislature before a measure is placed on the ballot. The Prop 8 forces chose not to follow the rules, including the constitutional safeguard against willy-nilly votes mandated, yes, by the people themselves. Indeed, shortly before the argument, the Legislature passed a resolution urging the Court to strike down Prop 8 because the Prop 8 forces in their zeal deprived the Legislature of its constitutional responsibility to review the measure.
The Court has the duty to strike down Prop 8, a measure that, while it received a narrow majority, should not have been on the ballot in the first place. The Court should explain that the interests of all of us, even a temporarily disgruntled majority, are better served when the rules are upheld. The Court should remind the public that, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “There is no more effective practical guaranty against arbitrary and unreasonable government than to require that the principles of law which officials would impose upon a minority must be imposed generally.” That restraining principle is an essential pillar of equal protection. The very idea that the Court would permit a simple majority to even inadvertently discard such a defining element of the Constitution is distressing.