Precisely What Will, or Should, Happen to Same-Sex Marriage in California if the Supreme Court Finds in Hollingsworth v. Perry That the Proposition 8 Sponsors Lack Standing? Part One in a Two-Part Series of Columns


No one knows for sure what the Supreme Court is going to do with Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case (argued late last month) in which two same-sex couples sued in federal court to invalidate California’s Proposition 8, a voter-adopted state constitutional ban on gay marriage.  But many—myself included—think that, among the various scenarios, the most probable outcome (and one that is perhaps more likely than not) is that a majority of Justices will dispose of the case by finding that the Proposition 8 sponsors (also known as the official “proponents” of the measure), the only ones who defended against the challenge, do not enjoy standing in federal court to speak on behalf of the State.  If the sponsors lack standing, there is no valid “case” or “controversy” (terms used in Article III of the U.S. Constitution) in which the Supreme Court could resolve the merits of the plaintiffs’ equal protection and due process challenges.

As I have explained more fully in a number of writings going back a few years (including this one), my reason for doubting the sponsors’ standing—and it differs somewhat from the reasons argued in the amicus brief filed by Professor and former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, in which he also concludes that the Proposition 8 sponsors lack standing—is that when voters in California passed Proposition 8 in 2008, they could not have in any way be said to have knowingly appointed the sponsors as their agents to represent the State in the event that the Attorney General and Governor fail (as they did, in fact, fail) to defend the enactment if and when it was challenged in federal court.

The Consequences of a Denial of Standing to the Proposition 8 Sponsors:  Common Ground and Divergent Opinions

But if the Court finds no sponsor standing, what happens next?  There seem to be a number of answers that have been offered by various talking heads.  In the space below, the first of a two-part series of columns, I explain, albeit in necessarily abbreviated terms, what I think should and might happen.

For starters, if sponsor standing is found to be lacking, everyone agrees (or certainly ought to agree) that the Ninth Circuit opinion invalidating Proposition 8 on the merits and creating law of the Ninth Circuit that could conceivably affect other states and also other issues in the Circuit would be vacated, that is, figuratively erased.  Beyond that, there is also broad agreement that the two named same-sex couples in the Hollingsworth case who sought marriage licenses from the county clerks in Alameda and Los Angeles counties, respectively, should get their licenses.  But exactly why and how these two named couples would get the relief they seek is where commentators seem to diverge.

My own view is that if the Court finds that the sponsors lack standing to defend Proposition 8, then after the Ninth Circuit ruling is vacated, the case should be sent back (in legal parlance, remanded) to the district court and at that point, the district court order—invalidating Proposition 8 and imposing an injunction against the named defendants—that was issued after Judge Vaughn Walker’s famous trial should also be vacated.  The named plaintiffs would then seek and obtain a victory through a device known as a “default judgment.”  A default judgment is what plaintiffs who have a right to sue (and the plaintiff same-sex couples here clearly did have such a right) get when the only valid defendants—by hypothesis here, the Attorney General and the Governor—“fail to defend.” To those who think Judge Walker’s order and injunction that he already issued on the basis of the trial he conducted should remain intact, I ask:  If Article III standing means anything, how can a trial in which there were valid Article III parties (that is, parties with standing) on only one side of the “v.” resolve the merits of a case?

Why it Matters Whether a Default Judgment is Appropriate

If the named plaintiffs should get their licenses either way, a reader might ask, why does it matter whether we go the default judgment route, rather than simply leaving Judge Walker’s order in place?  There are a few reasons.  First, plaintiffs must request a default judgment, and as far as I have been able to discern at this point (the record is quite voluminous), no request or motion for entry of a default judgment was made in the district court.  (The fact that no one appears to have made any such request is a bit odd, since Judge Walker himself seemed to doubt the sponsors’ Article III standing even as he allowed them to intervene as parties in the case. Given Judge Walker’s doubt about sponsor standing, the plaintiffs should have been asking themselves whether they even needed a trial to occur in order to prevail.  But it also may be that plaintiffs and their counsel wanted a high-visibility trial for reasons that go beyond procuring justice for the named plaintiffs themselves.)  So, to respect legal niceties, plaintiffs should have to go back and seek the default judgment to which they are entitled.

Second, legal niceties matter here because the scope of the injunction (the judicial command) that Judge Walker issued might have been informed by the trial that he (wrongly) held.  Judge Walker issued an injunction that, by its straightforward terms, tells the defendants (the Governor, the Attorney General, and the County Clerks in LA and Alameda counties) not only that the named plaintiffs can be married, but also that they (the defendants) are judicially prohibited from applying Proposition 8 to anyone else.

As Professor Marty Lederman and I and others have pointed out, under the law of the Ninth Circuit (and perhaps also that of the Supreme Court), a district judge has no power, outside of a class action setting, to order relief that goes beyond protecting the named plaintiffs to also protect other would-be plaintiffs, unless full relief cannot be given to the named plaintiffs without also necessarily regulating the defendants’ interactions with other persons.  In the present setting, full relief (i.e., marriage licenses) can be given to the named plaintiffs without ordering the defendants to give licenses to anyone else.

Some have argued that providing full relief to the named plaintiffs requires allowing all same-sex couples in the state to marry, because absent such broad access to same-sex marriage, the named plaintiffs’ marriages would continue to be subject to stigma.  But I don’t think that this stigma argument works, because if it did, then same-sex couples who were already married in California in the summer of 2008 (during the window before Proposition 8 was passed) would have standing in federal court to challenge Proposition 8 on the theory that their marriages, which were not invalidated by Proposition 8, are nonetheless stigmatized unless other same-sex couples can marry too.  And I don’t think that argument would fly.

As Professor Lederman has suggested, Judge Walker’s injunction was seemingly overly broad even assuming that the trial was properly held, and Professor Lederman argues that the way to cure this mistake is to construe the injunction narrowly to apply only to the named plaintiffs, since any injunction broader than that would be impermissible.  Technically, because the words used in Judge Walker’s injunction (and his subsequent denial of a “stay,” or a hold, on his injunction) do not explicitly refer to other same-sex couples beyond the named plaintiffs, we might be able to do what Professor Lederman suggests. But such a reading of the injunction’s plain words seems strained and surely not reflective of Judge Walker’s intent.  Under my approach, no artificial construction of Judge Walker’s order is required, since I think the trial never should have taken place, and plaintiffs need to go back and make a request for a default judgment, after which the judge (Walker’s replacement, since he has retired) can enter a properly limited injunction.  And the appropriateness of a narrow injunction is easier to see after a default judgment than after a trial on the merits.  (As an aside, I do note that after a request for a default is made, a judge can hold a hearing if needed, but I’m not sure that one would be needed here, and I’m certainly not sure that such a hearing would look anything like Walker’s trial.)

Is the Scope of the Trial Court Injunction Appropriate for the Supreme Court to Discuss?

Professor Dellinger, for his part, says the scope of the injunction isn’t validly before the Supreme Court unless and until some valid litigant (i.e., not the sponsors, but rather a valid representative of the State of California) appeals it.  I disagree with this position based on the analysis I’ve just discussed: The impropriety of the trial itself and the judgment to which it led is certainly something that the district court can and should consider on remand if the Supreme Court finds that the sponsors lack Article III standing, and the Supreme Court is well within its authority to give such guidance to the lower courts about what should happen on remand.  But Professor Dellinger and I may have an even deeper divergence of opinion.  Professor Dellinger argues that there is a standing problem in the Hollinger case because the sponsors lack standing, and they are the ones who have tried to invoke the federal court at the Ninth Circuit and Supreme Court levels (having lost in each of the lower courts.)  By contrast, the plaintiffs, who invoked the power of the district court, clearly do have standing, so the district court had a case or controversy before it.

This reasoning is to my mind only partially correct.  The district court did have a case or controversy before it for the limited purpose of granting a default judgment, but not for purposes of holding a trial to adjudicate the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.  There is always a case or controversy (assuming plaintiffs have standing, and are suing under a federal claim) for purposes of issuing a default judgment; the government or any other proper defendant cannot defeat potentially valid claims by simply not defending against them.  But once the only proper defendants decline to defend, the district court does not have Article III power to do any more.  And it doesn’t matter who was invoking the power of the federal court.

To see this, imagine that the plaintiffs had lost the trial, and had then appealed to the Ninth Circuit, lost on the merits there, and then sought review in the Supreme Court.  In that hypothetical, the party invoking the jurisdiction of each level of the federal judiciary—the same-sex couple plaintiffs—would clearly have standing.  But if the only persons defending were sponsors who lack Article III standing, neither the Ninth Circuit nor the Supreme Court could, in my view, rule on the merits.  (Indeed, when the Supreme Court began its discussion of whether initiative sponsors lack Article III standing in in the 1997 case of Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, the Court observed that “[s]tanding to sue or defend is an aspect of the case or controversy requirement,” not that standing to invoke the federal courts is an aspect of the case or controversy requirement.)

It seems to me that, notwithstanding some sloppiness here and there by the Court over the years (and no one can draw a straight line through everything the Court has said or done in this realm), if standing doctrine is to have any integrity, what matters for purposes of adjudication on the merits is that there be, at the time the merits adjudication is performed, valid, adverse, Article III-qualified parties on both sides of the “v.,” not just on the side of the “v.” that has invoked the federal judiciary.

In Part Two of this series (currently scheduled to run on this site on April 26, 2013), I will examine what will happen if Judge Walker’s ruling is left intact and is read broadly, rather than narrowly, to apply to couples other than the named plaintiffs. I will also consider what things might look like if, in response to a Supreme Court ruling that the sponsors lack standing, either county clerks themselves or the Governor and Attorney General decide on their own to stop implementing Proposition 8, whether or not any court order tells them they must do that.