conflict of interest

Prop 8 Proponents Change Their Tune on the Damage of Marriage Equality

In their latest attempt to stymie marriage equality in the courts, the lawyers defending California’s Proposition 8 are now claiming that Vaughn Walker, the judge who ruled the state’s marriage discrimination unconstitutional, should have been disqualified from the case because he is gay.

The argument that a gay judge shouldn’t be allowed to handle gay rights cases is pretty flimsy to begin with – but now it’s caused the anti-equality attorneys to paint themselves into a pretty tight corner:

Now, as the sponsors of Proposition 8 try to convince the courts that the judge who overturned the measure had a built-in bias as a gay man with a longtime partner, their opponents are invoking that same campaign message: If Prop. 8 was meant to preserve opposite-sex marriages, they argue, then any judge, gay or straight, would have the similar conflict of interest.

In their latest court filing, the measure's supporters reply that they never promoted Prop. 8 as a benefit for married couples - just for society as a whole.

"Our argument is that adoption of same-sex marriage will likely harm the institution of marriage over time, not that any individual's existing marriage will be affected," said Charles Cooper, lawyer for the Prop. 8 campaign committee, a conservative religious coalition called Protect Marriage.

"The notion that all married heterosexual judges have a direct and substantial personal interest in the outcome of this case is, of course, patently absurd."

Oh really?

Because in the Prop 8 trial last summer, Cooper himself argued that allowing gay people to marry would actively harm heterosexual marriages…by somehow encouraging heterosexuals to cheat on their spouses.

And then there’s the famous ad that Protect Marriage’s major financial backer, the National Organization for Marriage, created to boost Prop 8:

These people sound pretty personally threatened by the prospect of gay people getting married.

Maybe Prop 8’s proponents have changed their minds about the dire consequences of marriage equality. Or maybe they’re just once again running up against the lack of logic behind their case.

 

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Supreme Court Recusal Bill Introduced

For several weeks now, more and more people have been paying attention to the general absence of enforceable standards for the recusal of Supreme Court Justices from cases in which their impartiality is in question. Rep. Chris Murphy (CT) has introduced a bill, cosponsored by Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY), that would introduce significant reforms to the manner in which Supreme Court Justices recuse themselves – or don't – from cases in which their impartiality may reasonably be questioned.

Currently, Justices decide for themselves whether they will recuse themselves. They do not need to state the reasons for their decision to recuse or not to recuse, and their decisions are non-reviewable. This can be a problem. As Talking Points Memo reports:

Justices Thomas and Scalia have been under frequent fire in liberal circles over their attendance at conferences sponsored by Koch Industries in recent years, a company whose owners have been major financial backers of conservative political causes. Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, runs a conservative nonprofit group, Liberty Central, and some have suggested her activism against President Obama's health care legislation could be a conflict of interest for her husband if the new health care reform law -- as expected -- reaches the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas raised eyebrows this weekend when he said in a speech at a banquet that his wife was working "in defense of liberty" and that they "love the same things, we believe in the same things."

Rep. Murphy discussed this at an event yesterday to generate support for his reform bill.

"The problem is the only person who can decide whether Justice Thomas can recuse himself is Justice Thomas," Murphy told reporters at a press conference outside the Capitol. "That's wrong and that needs to change."

Fortunately, by the time the Supreme Court hears the healthcare case, Americans might not have to rely only on Justice Thomas' goodwill. As described on Rep. Murphy's website, his bill would:

  • apply the Judicial Conference's Code of Conduct, which applies to all other federal judges, to Supreme Court justices. This would allow the public to access more timely and detailed information when an outside group wants to have a justice participate in a conference, such as the funders of the conference;
  • require the justices to simply publicly disclose their reasoning behind a recusal when they withdraw from a case;
  • require the Court to develop a process for parties to a case before the Court to request a decision from the Court, or a panel of the Court, regarding the potential conflict of interest of a particular Justice.

Until the bill passes, we will continue to strongly urge Justice Thomas to recuse himself from future healthcare reform cases, as requested by Rep. Weiner and 73 of his colleagues.

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Judging, Judges and Prop 8

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, in a piece titled, “Don’t ask, don’t judge?” gave a rhetorical green light to Religious Right activists who have responded to news that federal judge Vaughn Walker is gay by attacking his ability to rule fairly on the constitutional challenge to Prop. 8, the California ballot initiative that stripped same-sex couples of the right to get married.

Although Marcus concludes in the end that Walker, who was randomly assigned to hear the case, was right not to recuse himself simply because he is gay, she does so after a lot of “squirming” like this:

So when Walker considers claims that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process of law, it's hard to imagine that his sexuality, if he is gay, does not influence his decision-making -- just as the experience of having gay friends or relatives would affect a straight judge.

In the end, Marcus writes,

In this case, I hope the plaintiffs win and that Walker rules that the same-sex marriage ban violates their constitutional rights. At the same time, I've got to acknowledge: If I were on the side supporting the ban and found it struck down by a supposedly gay judge, I'd have some questions about whether the judicial deck had been stacked from the start.

But why wouldn’t the deck be considered “stacked” against gay people if a straight judge were deciding the case? By concluding her column that way, Marcus gives credence to the offensive notion that is already being promoted by right-wing leaders that a gay judge cannot be expected to rule fairly in a case involving the legal rights of gay Americans.

Here’s Matt Barber, director of cultural affairs with Liberty Counsel, responding to news that Judge Walker is, in Barber’s words, “an active practitioner of the homosexual lifestyle.”

“At worst, Judge Walker’s continued involvement with this case presents a textbook conflict of interest. At best, it objectively illustrates the unseemly appearance of a conflict.

"If Judge Walker somehow divines from thin air that the framers of the U.S. Constitution actually intended that Patrick Henry had a ‘constitutional right’ to marry Henry Patrick, then who among us will be surprised?

“Any decision favoring plaintiffs in this case will be permanently marred and universally viewed as stemming from Judge Walker’s personal biases and alleged lifestyle choices.

"For these reasons, and in the interest of justice, Judge Walker should do the honorable thing and immediately recuse himself.”

Barber tries to make a case that he is taking a principled stand by saying, “This is no different than having an avid gun collector preside over a Second Amendment case,” continued Barber, “or a frequent user of medical marijuana deciding the legality of medical marijuana.”

Really, Matt? You expect us to believe that you would advocate that judges who collect guns should recuse themselves from cases involving the Second Amendment? What about avid hunters, like Justice Antonin Scalia? Should anyone who owns a gun be assumed not to be able to rule fairly on legal issues involving guns?

The Post’s Marcus concluded that asking Judge Walker to recuse himself would “invite too many challenges to judicial fairness -- Jewish judges hearing cases about Christmas displays, or judges who once represented unions or management presiding over labor disputes.”

What about Christian judges presiding over Christmas displays? Can you imagine the outrage from Matt Barber and his Religious Right colleagues if someone were to suggest that Christian judges should be barred from hearing cases involving legal and constitutional questions about separation of church and state?

In a diverse and pluralistic nation, it’s important that the federal bench reflect that diversity. But what’s far more important than an individual judge’s race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is his or her judicial philosophy and understanding of the Constitution’s text, history, and role in protecting the rights and opportunities of all Americans.

The unspoken offensive presumption at work here is that people who come to the law with a life experience that is considered “normal” – say, straight white male Christian – are inherently unbiased, or that their life experience somehow gives them a singularly correct way of viewing the law. Others are suspect.

This notion was on ugly display during the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, when her recognition that she would bring her life experience as a Latina to the bench was used to pillory her as a white-male-hating racist. What about all those white male senators, and the white male Supreme Court Justices they had voted to confirm? Samuel Alito’s ethnic pride and empathy were considered valid, while Sotomayor’s was radical and threatening.

Ruth Marcus is no Matt Barber. She is in some ways simply acknowledging the reality that there is still a level of emotional prejudice against gay people that will keep some Americans from believing that a gay judge can be fair. But she is far too sympathetic to the purveyors of that prejudice. Her column validates their bigotry and will encourage more of the kind of divisive rhetoric we see from the likes of Barber.

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