If the Supreme Court Decides the Proposition 8 Sponsors Lack Standing, What Will Happen to Same-Sex Marriage in California? Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns
In my last column (Part One of this series), I began to lay out what I think might (and should) happen if the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the Proposition 8 sponsors lack standing in federal court. I explained my view that such a ruling is the best option for the Supreme Court because the voters of California, in enacting Proposition 8, cannot be said to have designated the sponsors as the People’s agents—and agency is a key concept here—in that the voters did not do or say anything that manifested their assent to create a relationship of agency. (It is on this crucial question of assent to agency where, as I explain in longer academic writings, I part company with thoughtful commentators, like Ed Whelan, who have argued that as long as the California Supreme Court today thinks that under the California constitution the sponsors are the People’s representatives, it does not matter whether voters, when they enacted Proposition 8 in 2008, could have anticipated this principle of California law, which was not made clear until 2011.)
I also explained in Part One in this series of columns why I believe that if the Proposition 8 sponsors are found by the Supreme Court to lack standing, both the Ninth Circuit’s and the District Court’s rulings below should be vacated (that is, erased), and the plaintiffs (the two same-sex couples who sued in federal court in San Francisco) should get relief in the form of a “default” judgment that allows them, and them only (for the time being), to get their marriage licenses. This result follows, I think, from the overall logic of the law in this area, as well as from what the U.S. Supreme Court said in Karcher v. May, in which a unanimous Court intimated that if the only defendant who is defending on the merits is found on appeal to have lacked standing all the while, the district court’s adjudication of the merits of the plaintiff’s claim should be vacated.
In the space below, I delve further into what might happen after it is determined whether the District Court’s rulings should be left intact or undone.
Scenario 1: Judge Walker’s Injunction Stands, and Is Read Broadly
Let us first imagine that the federal courts do not follow my suggested approach concerning Judge Walker’s order. I start with that possibility because I acknowledge that many (maybe a majority of) analysts assert (albeit, to my mind, without adequate explanation or justification) that District Judge Walker’s injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Proposition 8 should not be disturbed and should go into effect as is. Suppose that the injunction is left intact, and suppose that the injunction is read (as it certainly can be read) to apply not just to the named same-sex couple plaintiffs, but also to other same-sex couples. What could happen then?
Well, to begin with, we could expect that neither the California Attorney General nor the Governor would contest this broad reading of the injunction. And we know that the sponsors of Proposition 8 would not have any legal standing to object either (at least not in federal court). The two county clerks who were named as defendants in the action, the clerks of Los Angeles and Alameda counties, would also probably be content to issue marriage licenses to other same-sex couples in those counties.
But what about the county clerks in other counties, counties that weren’t named in the Proposition 8 lawsuit in Judge Walker’s court? If they feel bound by Judge Walker’s order, and none complains, then perhaps Proposition 8 will not be enforced at all, and marriage will be available to all qualified same-sex couples in the state.
Yet, there are a few wrinkles here. First, some individual who supports Proposition 8 might sue one of these county clerks and ask a court to clarify that Judge Walker’s injunction does not apply to that clerk. The plaintiff here might argue that the clerk in question is not bound by Judge Walker’s injunction because he, the clerk, was not a party to that lawsuit and is not under the “control or supervision” (the term Judge Walker used) of any of the parties (such as the Governor.) Any such suit would probably be brought in state court, because it’s not obvious who would have standing in federal court to object to a clerk’s issuing of same-sex marriage licenses.
Second, it bears noting that some county clerks represent, and have been elected in, counties that strongly support Proposition 8. What if one of these clerks resists issuing same-sex marriage licenses, arguing that she remains bound by Proposition 8 until and unless a court tells her, specifically, otherwise? If so, that clerk might then be sued by a same-sex marriage license applicant to get a determination of whether Judge Walker’s order binds her. Or she herself may even act proactively, going into court to ask for a clear ruling that she, the clerk, is not bound by Judge Walker’s injunction or, if she is, to ask that the injunction be reopened because she didn’t have a chance to participate in the proceedings Judge Walker’s court.
This may then raise the question whether local clerks have federal standing to defend Proposition 8 (and remember that they, unlike the sponsors, they are elected officials). And even if they do, a similar question arises of whether they have the authority to take a position in court that differs from the position urged by the Governor and Attorney General (that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.) These two related questions are tricky, and would likely require additional input from the California Supreme Court, which would take time.
My provisional sense is that it should be rare for any lower executive official in California to be able to take a legal position in court contrary to that which is being asserted by the Governor on the question of the meaning or validity of a statewide law; in a seminal ruling in 1981 (when Jerry Brown was Governor the first time!), the California Supreme Court ruled that even the state Attorney General (elected to be the chief legal officer of the state) could not take a position adverse to the Governor’s in court because under the State Constitution, the Governor retains the “Supreme Executive power” to determine the public interests, and under state statutes he is to “supervise the official conduct of all executive and ministerial officers.” It may well be that county clerks are deemed executive and/or ministerial officers for these purposes, and thus are subject to gubernatorial control with respect to the positions taken in court. It wouldn’t make much sense, to me, to give locally elected county clerks more authority than the state’s chief legal officer, the Attorney General, to defy the Governor in court, unless we conclude that county clerks are autonomous like charter cities, which have some independence from state control.
But as I suggested above, all this would take time to sort out (especially if any of the proceedings take place in federal court, and the federal judges feel the need to seek input from the California Supreme Court by way of certification, the device the Ninth Circuit used to get state court input on the question of sponsor standing.)
Or maybe all of these problems could be avoided if all same-sex couples seeking to be married are willing to go to Alameda or Los Angeles counties where licenses might be freely issued. Perhaps that would effectively nullify Proposition 8. But it would also impose its own set of inconveniences on some couples.
Scenario 2: Judge Walker’s Broad Injunction Is Either Read Narrowly to Apply to the Named Plaintiffs Only, or Replaced by a Narrower One That by Its Terms Applies to the Named Plaintiffs Only
Now let us imagine that the course that I argue is the correct legal one is followed, and that whatever injunction is in force is issued (or construed) to award marriage licenses to the named plaintiffs only. Then what? One possibility is that county clerks, at least in counties that strongly oppose Proposition 8, would simply decide to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses generally even though no court order is directing them to do so. While that is imaginable politically, I think it runs into legal barriers. Indeed, that is precisely the action that was taken by the county clerk in San Francisco in 2004 (at SF Mayor Gavin Newsom’s urging) but that was repudiated unanimously by the California Supreme Court in Lockyer v. San Francisco. There, a majority of California Justices emphatically rejected the idea that a “local executive official, charged with the ministerial duty of enforcing [state law,] has the authority to disregard the terms of the [state law] in the absence of a judicial [directive], based solely upon the official’s opinion that the [law] is unconstitutional.” So I don’t think that county clerks could, or should, simply start disregarding Proposition 8 on their own.
But what if the Governor were to try to direct county clerks not to implement Proposition 8? Again that might be politically plausible, but would it fly legally? For starters, what about the Lockyer ruling? Strictly speaking, the issue presented in Lockyer involved the power of local executive officials, not that of the Governor, but Justice Werdegar’s separate writing in that case understood the majority opinion to sweep broadly and apply not just to local executive officials but to the entire executive branch: “Make no mistake, the majority does . . . hold that [all] executive officers must follow statutory rather than constitutional law until a court gives them permission to do otherwise in advance.”
Even if the Governor is not covered by the Lockyer opinion, there is still a question under California law about whether locally elected county clerks enjoy some autonomy from gubernatorial control in their performance of their duties. I suggested above that perhaps a county clerk may not take a position in court that is adverse to the Governor’s on the validity of a state law, but there may be a distinction between having control over the legal positions asserted in court, and having control over enforcement of the law itself.
Indeed, such a distinction (between declining to enforce and declining to defend in court) is hinted at in another potentially important piece of law that may constrain the Governor here, Article III, Section 3.5 of the California Constitution. It provides that no “administrative agency [even one created by the State Constitution] has . . .power . . . to refuse to enforce a statute, on the basis of its being unconstitutional, unless an appellate court has made a determination that such a statute is unconstitutional.” Does this provision prevent the Governor from directing officials (even if they are otherwise under his control) not to enforce Proposition 8 until an appellate court determines Proposition 8 is unconstitutional?
It might, and it might not. Is the Governor an “agency” within the meaning of Article III, section 3.5? The Attorney General has issued advisory opinions that offer one possible definition of “agency” here that is broad enough to include, essentially, all state-level executive operations, and there is no doubt that the Governor is quintessentially executive and operates at the state, rather than the local, level. At least one California court case seems to apply section 3.5 to another statewide elected official, the State Controller.
What about section 3.5’s reference to refusal to enforce a statute? Could one argue that section 3.5 does not apply to the Proposition 8 setting because Proposition 8 is a state constitutional provision, rather than a statute? I don’t think this argument would work. First, and most important, it would be odd as a policy matter to favor the enforcement of state statutes over state constitutional provisions. So the word “statute” here would probably be read to also include state constitutional provisions that are alleged to violate the federal Constitution.
Second, there may be an argument that Governor Brown would be refusing to enforce a regular statute—Proposition 22—were he to order the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses. Proposition 22 is the statute (a statutory initiative known as the Knight initiative) banning same-sex marriage that the California Supreme Court held unenforceable when it ruled in May of 2008 that the state constitution protects same-sex marriage. But since Proposition 8 amended that part of the California constitution that rendered Proposition 22 unenforceable, perhaps one could contend that Proposition 22 is now a valid statute that would be protected by section 3.5. A rejoinder to that argument could be that since, under the California Supreme Court’s May 2008 decision, the Knight initiative was invalid when it was enacted eight years earlier (and we just didn’t know that until 2008), it never was—and is not now—entitled to be considered a valid statutory enactment. This is convoluted stuff. And, as is true with the first scenario, all of this would have to be fought out in state court, and that would take time.
Finally, let us return to the distinction between the refusal to enforce a law, and the refusal to defend the law in court. Whether such a distinction is a sensible one to draw, notice again that section 3.5 speaks only to the former, and does not seem to impose a duty on the Governor (even if he is an agency), or the Attorney General, to defend any measure challenged in court. So, under Scenario Number 2, imagine that a new lawsuit, a statewide class action consisting of all same-sex couples in the state who desire to get married, is brought to challenge Proposition 8 on federal constitutional grounds (just as the two couples did in Judge Walker’s court). If such a class action were to be brought in federal court, and if the Attorney General and Governor were to decline to defend in that case (and assuming no county clerk could successfully intervene and take a position adverse to the Governor’s), a default judgment protecting all same-sex couples would then issue, and Proposition 8 would be a dead letter even if were not repealed at the ballot box. (It is also possible that such a class action could be brought in state court, alleging that Proposition 8 violates the federal constitution, but since state courts would permit the sponsors to defend the measure on the merits there, any ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would be less certain, and more time-consuming, than a default judgment.)
Thus, if the U.S. Supreme Court finds no sponsor standing in federal court, how broadly available same-sex marriage will be in California might still take some time to sort out.