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.
But, shockingly, the Chief Justice spoke as if his hands were tied by the mere fact of the November vote, the legitimacy of which is the very issue before the Court. He did not explain that equal protection at a minimum obliges the majority to itself abide by whatever treatment it imposes on a minority — a core structural principle eviscerated by Prop 8, which removed the fundamental right to marry for the gay minority alone while retaining that precious right for the majority. Rather, Chief Justice George appeared to profess helplessness in the face of precedents on how to distinguish a revision from a mere amendment. However, it was the Court itself that set those precedents, which themselves did not preclude logical extension should an unprecedented situation require further vigilance. As Justice Kathryn Werdeger and other justices noted, Prop 8 is exactly such an unprecedented assault. To build on and beyond precedents where warranted is why we have judges, not just law books.
Never before has the Court allowed a fundamental right to be voted away from a targeted minority. Never before has the Court taken the invitation of a lawyer, such as Prop 8's Ken Starr, to set a precedent that, as Starr repeatedly conceded, would put no state constitutional limitation on a future majority's ability to vote away protections against race or sex discrimination or cherished freedoms such as speech, worship, or, yes, the freedom to marry — the "essence" of which, the California Supreme Court explained in 1948 when it became the first court in the U.S. with the courage to strike down race restrictions on marriage, is the right "to join in marriage with the person of one's choice," the person who to you may be "irreplaceable." Imagine what California and our country would look like today had that court flinched in the face of the 90% disapproval of the then-majority. Imagine what the Constitution would look like if a mere majority could always cement inequality or a selective denial of fundamental rights into it, without even the procedural protection of the deliberative revision process the people themselves set forth.
As destructive and tragic as a new precedent upholding Prop 8 would be, however, that's not even the potential mistake to which I referred at the beginning. Chief Justice George's and Justice Kennard 's exchanges at oral argument suggested that they may be about to minimize their own ringing and legacy-shaping 2008 Marriage Cases opinions, apparently as a way of avoiding the obligation to follow through and strike down Prop 8. They seemed to suggest that the selective stripping away of marriage was not all that significant, that because same-sex couples still would have partnership rights, their forced exclusion from marriage was a matter of mere "nomenclature." This was the most unkindest cut of all.
Hearing dismissive characterizations such as "nomenclature" during oral argument, it was hard to believe that here was the same courageous judge's judge who less than a year ago wrote the following in Marriage Cases [emphasis added]:
The Chief Justice was right in Marriage Cases when he wrote these and other similar passages, and would be horribly wrong now to trivialize or turn away from them. It is no answer to say that Prop 8 changed the Constitution; the very question before the Court is whether such a profound revision withdrawing equal protection and a recognized fundamental freedom is permitted.
At various civil rights moments in American history, the courts' vital role in enforcing equal protection, and judges themselves, have come under tremendous pressure. Recall, for instance, the "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards following Brown v. Board of Education, the vitriol against the California Supreme Court when it had to strike down a 1964 constitutional change that undermined protections against race-discrimination, and the Rovian campaign of intimidation waged against so-called "activist judges" these past 8 Bush years. Its shining moment in standing up against such intimidation, in addition to its right result on marriage and equal citizenship for lesbian and gay Americans, was why I and millions cheered the Court's courage and clarity in 2008. In Marriage Cases, we saw a court do its job, and do it right.
Unlike right-wing opponents of equality, who denounce and seek to punish courts for doing their job, I criticize only when they flinch or fail to do it. If the Court, and if this Chief Justice, vote to uphold Prop 8's damaging blow to American constitutional principles, it will be a terrible mistake, failing their obligation under and to the California Constitution. If in so doing, they compound that mistake by selling short, or sidling away from, the truths set forth so powerfully in Chief Justice George's 2008 ruling — the fundamental nature of the freedom to marry, the way in which exclusion from marriage itself denies equality and imposes the stigma of second-class citizenship — they will do a powerful disservice to the people, to the Constitution, and to history, which for the moment still ranks them alongside the judges who struck down race discrimination and the subordination of women in marriage in the face of the passions of the moment, and were vindicated. Failure of judgment and duty now will tarnish their own legacy, wreak real harm on gay people and their loved ones, and shatter the faith of millions in the courts and their legitimate and crucial role in our constitutional system.
To be remembered, after all, for these missed stakes, would be heartbreaking.