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Court Ruling: Gay Judge in Prop 8 Trial Not Biased

Former Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker did not face a conflict of interest when he struck down California's ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional last year, Walker's successor ruled Tuesday. 

The proponents of Proposition 8 tried to invalidate Walker's landmark 2010 by pointing out that the former chief judge, who retired earlier this year, is openly gay and has been in a 10-year relationship with another man. They claimed this fact satisfied the grounds for recusal or disqualification of a federal judge, which are laid out in a law called Section 455.

"The sole fact that a federal judge shares the same circumstances or personal characteristics with other members of the general public, and that the judge could be affected by the outcome of a proceeding in the same way that other members of the general public would be affected, is not a basis for either recusal or disqualification under Section 455(b)(4)," Chief U.S. District Judge James Ware wrote. "Further, under Section 455(a), it is not reasonable to presume that a judge is incapable of making an impartial decision about the constitutionality of a law, solely because, as a citizen, the judge could be affected by the proceedings."

After Walker retired at the end of February 2011, the Proposition 8 case was reassigned to Ware, and Walker spoke to Reuters about his career and his 10-year relationship with a physician. and other the other Prop. 8 proponents moved to vacate Walker's decision on April 25, arguing that this admission constituted grounds for Walker's disqualification. 

Ware explained that the argument is not novel in civil rights actions.

"The fact that a federal judge shares a fundamental characteristic with a litigant, or shares membership in a large association such as a religion, has been categorically rejected by federal courts as a sole basis for requiring a judge to recuse her or himself," Ware wrote. "Defendant-Intervenors deny that the Motion is based on bias against gay or lesbian judges or based on the broad proposition that a gay or lesbian judge is incapable of being fair if sexual orientation is an issue in a case. Rather, Defendant-Intervenors narrow their Motion to the contention that Judge Walker had an actual interest in the case. Plaintiffs in the underlying case were same-sex couples who were challenging the constitutionality of a California Proposition that, Plaintiffs contend, stripped them of the right, as same-sex couples, to marry. At the time the case was assigned to him, Judge Walker was in a same-sex relationship. Defendant-Intervenors contend that Judge Walker had an interest in the case because if he were to decide that Plaintiffs were entitled to have their right to marry restored, even though there was no evidence that Judge Walker intended to marry, the sole fact that he was in a same-sex relationship placed Judge Walker in the position of deciding a case that could affect him if he were to desire to marry."

As he indicated during oral arguments on Monday, Ware summarily rejected the attempt within 24 hours of a hearing.

"In applying this conclusion to the present case, the Court finds that Judge Walker was not required to recuse himself under Section 455(b)(4) on the ground that he was engaged in a long-term same-sex relationship and, thus, could reap speculative benefit from an injunction halting enforcement of Proposition 8 in California. In particular, in a case involving laws restricting the right of various members of the public to marry, any personal interest that a judge gleans as a member of the public who might marry is too attenuated to warrant recusal. Requiring recusal because a court issued an injunction that could provide some speculative future benefit to the presiding judge solely on the basis of the fact that the judge belongs to the class against whom the unconstitutional law was directed would lead to a Section 455(b)(4) standard that required recusal of minority judges in most, if not all, civil rights cases. Congress could not have intended such an unworkable recusal statute."

Walker's relationship also did give him more interest in the case than other members of the general public had, Ware added.

"First, it is inconsistent with the general principles of constitutional adjudication to presume that a member of a minority group reaps a greater benefit from application of the substantive protections of our Constitution than would a member of the majority," according to the 21-page decision. "The fact that this is a case challenging a law on equal protection and due process grounds being prosecuted by members of a minority group does not mean that members of the minority group have a greater interest in equal protection and due process than the rest of society. In our society, a variety of citizens of different backgrounds coexist because we have constitutionally bound ourselves to protect the fundamental rights of one another from being violated by unlawful treatment. Thus, we all have an equal stake in a case that challenges the constitutionality of a restriction on a fundamental right. One of the duties placed on the shoulders of federal judges is the obligation to review the law to determine when unequal treatment violates our Constitution and when it does not. To the extent that a law is adjudged violative, enjoining enforcement of that law is a public good that benefits all in our society equally. Although this case was filed by same-sex couples seeking to end a California constitutional restriction on their right to marry, all Californians have an equal interest in the outcome of the case. The single characteristic that Judge Walker shares with the Plaintiffs, albeit one that might not have been shared with the majority of Californians, gave him no greater interest in a proper decision on the merits than would exist for any other judge or citizen."

Walker furthermore had no duty to disclose any details about his personal life when he was assigned to this case, Ware said. Doing so, moreover, would have "set a pernicious precedent," according to the ruling.

"Such a precedent would be detrimental to the integrity of the judiciary, because it would promote, incorrectly, disclosure by judges of highly personal information (e.g., information about a judge's history of being sexually abused as a child), however irrelevant or time-consuming," Ware wrote (parentheses in original). "Contrary to the intent of Section 455, which was designed to preserve judicial integrity through practices of transparency, it is clear that fostering the practice of commencing a judicial proceeding with an extensive exploration into the history and psyche of the presiding judge would produce the spurious appearance that irrelevant personal information could impact the judge's decision-making, which would be harmful to the integrity of the courts."

Ware added that it is "unreasonable" to presume that "all people in same-sex relationships think alike."

"The presumption that Judge Walker, by virtue of being in a same-sex relationship, had a desire to be married that rendered him incapable of making an impartial decision, is as warrantless as the presumption that a female judge is incapable of being impartial in a case in which women seek legal relief," Ware wrote.

Walker's decision is currently up for appeal in the 9th Circuit.


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