Tensions were high at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday as justices hammered attorneys with tough questioning on prospective rulings on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 — with a particular emphasis on inquiries about standing.
Within moments of the opening of the oral arguments in the Prop 8 case, known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, justices interrupted both Charles Cooper, who is arguing in favor of Prop 8, and Ted Olson, who is arguing against it on behalf of two plaintiff gay couples, with questions about standing.
Anti-gay groups, such as ProtectMarriage.com, are defending Prop 8 in court because California officials — Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris — have elected not to do so. Whether these groups have standing to defend the law is a question posed by the court.
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed by President Obama, was among those asking questions about standing, saying it’s “counterintuitive” for a state to grant standing to proponents of a ballot initiative because their views are in support of the measure.
Cooper said the California Supreme Court in 2011 ruled that proponents of a ballot initiative like Prop 8 bear a responsibility to defend the measure in court should state officials decline to do so. Otherwise, public officials could effectively veto a measure by declining to defend it.
But Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general under George W. Bush, disputed the notion that anti-gay groups have standing in the Prop 8 case because they are not elected officials.
“They haven’t been appointed; they have no fiduciary responsibility to the state,” Olson said. “Under Article III, it takes more than that [to have standing].”
The issue of standing is seen as crucial because if the court determines that anti-gay groups don’t have standing to defend Prop 8, the ruling of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker would remain in place and marriage rights for same-sex couples would likely be restored to California.
Associate Justice Samuel Alito expressed skepticism during the oral arguments that proponents of Prop 8 lack standing to defend their ballot measure, indicating someone should be able to defend the statute if public officials decline to do so.
“The whole process [of ballot initiative] would be defeated if the only people who could defend an initiative would be public officials,” Alito said.
Alito and other justices known for being conservative tipped their hand on the way they may rule in the case.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said the legalization of same-sex marriage would necessitate the legalization of gay adoption, and sociologists have “considerable disagreements” on whether that causes harm to a child.
“I don’t think we know the answer to that question,” Scalia said.
It’s unclear to which disagreement Scalia was referring. Just last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed same-sex marriage, saying it helps children. Following Scalia’s remarks, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminded Scalia that adoption isn’t at issue because California has legalized adoption rights for gay couples.
Alito, appointed by former President George W. Bush, cautioned against a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, which he said was “newer than cell phones and the Internet.”
“There isn’t a lot of data about its effect,” Alito said. “It may turn out to be a good thing. It may turn out not to be a good thing.”
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who was granted time to time speak during the arguments earlier this month, argued against Prop 8 on behalf of the Obama administration, saying Prop 8 should be struck down because gay people have “suffered a history of discrimination” and the law should be subject to heightened scrutiny.
Verrilli said the Obama administration is “not taking a position” on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized throughout the country as a result of the ruling — but said the door could be open to such a ruling in future cases. Instead, Verrilli advocated the idea of a “nine-state solution. Under that principle, states that offer domestic partnerships, but not same-sex marriage, would have to allow gay couples to enter into the union of marriage.
The solicitor general said California’s own domestic partnership law providing gay couples legal benefits but not the distinction of marriage “undercuts” any rationale for withholding the label of marriage for gay couples.
But the idea of a nine-state solution seemed distasteful to justices. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, noted that states that provide absolutely no legal recognition to gay couples provide more harm to gay couples than the states that offer domestic partnerships.
Verrili also maintained the Obama administration isn’t taking a position on whether proponents of Prop 8 have standing to defend the law, but said the notion they lack Article III standing in court is the stronger argument.
Top photo: The United States Supreme Court (via flickr.com/frted, CC 3.0)
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