Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What I got out of reading the Prop. 8 ruling, part 2 of 7

Last time I explained how the proponents (pro-Prop. 8) only produced two expert witnesses to present evidence for their case. One witness's testimony was found to be "unreliable" and the testimony of the other was given "little weight" by the court. You can read my earlier post for further explanation on why this happened.

By the way, why do I keep referring to the pro-Prop. 8 side as "proponents" instead of "defendants"? Well, because that's how the judge referred to them in the ruling. And why, you ask, does he use that term? Originally the lawsuit was brought against the governor of California, the Attorney General, the Director and Deputy Director of Public Health, and the clerk recorders of Alameda County and Los Angeles County--the defendants. But they all declined to defend Prop. 8 in court, and actually the Attorney General even conceded that Prop. 8 was unconstitutional. Therefore, the people who organized the actual pro-Prop. 8 campaign stepped forward to take up the cause in place of the defendants as "defendant-intervenors." I believe that's why they are referred to as "proponents" and not "defendants."

Getting on with the plaintiffs' case: the plaintiffs argued that Prop. 8 violates both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I'll do my best to unpack that statement. Due process means the government can't arbitrarily interfere with your right to life, liberty or property. If they do interfere with a right so fundamental--and the right to marry does fall within that definition--there are only a handful of acceptable reasons the government can give to justify that interference (such as national security or some dire situation like that). So the plaintiffs are claiming that the right to marry the person of their choice is protected by the Due Process Clause and Prop. 8 violates that right.

Now the Equal Protection Clause says that no person can be denied equal protection of the laws. Basically, this has to do with discrimination, that everyone must be treated equally under the law. The plaintiffs argued that Prop. 8 interferes with their right to marry (contra Due Process) because it discriminates against them as gay men and lesbians (contra Equal Protection). They claimed that Prop. 8 discriminates on two counts: it denies them a right to marry the person of their choice (sex discrimination), and disadvantages them as a suspect class because they are gay and lesbian (sexual orientation discrimination).

Okay, now what is a suspect class? Suspect class refers to distinctions made by the government on the basis of race, national origin or alienage that cannot be used as a basis for discrimination except for maybe a few special, narrowly defined cases (which, in practice, amounts to almost never). My (somewhat shaky) understanding is that sexual orientation isn't officially on the suspect class list, but the plaintiffs were arguing it should be and in the ruling the judge seemed to agree it should be treated as such. Yet as we'll see later, it wasn't necessary for the judge to decide whether sexual orientation should be considered a suspect class in order for him to rule in favor of the plaintiffs--but now we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Well, I was going to write more but my brain has been thoroughly exercised by all this legalese. I had to read way too many Wikipedia articles just to get this far. (Law students, feel free to correct whatever errors I'm sure I have made.) Next up, the "Findings of Fact."