In the space below, I continue to analyze what will—and what should—happen to California’s voter-adopted ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer in Hollingsworth v. Perry. Two weeks ago, in Part One of this two-part series, I argued that the request made on July 11 by the proponents of Proposition 8 to get the California Supreme Court to order County Clerks to stop granting same-sex marriage licenses—Clerks have been issuing same-sex licenses for about a month—was unlikely to be successful. Today, after elaborating a bit more on this post-Perry litigation, I move beyond the judicial arena to the ballot box, where I think repeal of Proposition 8 by the California electorate is feasible.
A Recent Development: The San Diego County Clerk Asks the California Supreme Court to Weigh In
Shortly after my last column was posted, the County Clerk for San Diego County filed a separate request in the California Supreme Court asking for an order declaring that Proposition 8 should continue to be enforced by County Clerks, and preventing the Governor, the Attorney General, and the State Registrar from trying to force the San Diego Clerk to issue same-sex marriage licenses. The San Diego Clerk’s arguments echoed those made to the California Supreme Court by the initiative’s proponents themselves the week before. As it did with the proponents’ request, the court refused to grant the San Diego Clerk an immediate block on same-sex marriage license issuance, but set a briefing schedule so that the court could decide whether to fully address the merits of the dispute in the coming month(s).
I don’t expect the California Justices to accept the San Diego County Clerk’s invitation to wade into this dispute in depth, for many of the same reasons that I discussed in Part One in connection with the proponents’ request: (1) The California Supreme Court’s review is discretionary; (2) The case turns largely on the best way to interpret a federal district court order, and state courts will usually refrain from getting into contested interpretations of federal court orders; (3) The federal court order, by its straightforward terms, applies broadly to the County Clerks in Los Angeles and Alameda, so that unless those two individuals challenge the federal court order, same-sex marriage licenses will continue to issue from those Counties (and thus in the State) in any event; and (4) Even if the state law questions—about the independence of County Clerks from the Governor or State Registrar and the obligation to continue to enforce laws that have not yet been invalidated by appellate courts—are interesting and important, there will be better cases down the road in which to reach those issues.
And here’s an additional reason why the San Diego Clerk’s request will likely be rejected by the California Supremes: unlike the Proposition 8 proponents, the San Diego Clerk (who is arguably subject to the federal court order) might have standing in federal court to seek a ruling—from that court itself—that he is not covered by the federal order and will not be held in federal contempt if he refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses. A federal court faced with such a such a case might, at that point, try to enlist the help of the California Supreme Court to answer the question whether County Clerks are subject to the “control or supervision” (the term used in the federal court order) of state-level officials. But the California Supreme Court would seem well-advised to wait for such a request (if one ever materialized) before opining on these matters.
Moving from the Courtroom to the Ballot Box: Repeal of a Measure No Longer Supported by the People
Based on the analysis offered above, I don’t expect the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in California to stop anytime soon. And so, for practical purposes at least, California’s ban on same-sex marriage will become a dead letter. Is that where the Proposition 8 political-legal opera should end? To my mind, the answer is no; I think Proposition 8’s true final Act should be repeal at the ballot box.
If Proposition 8 is not, in practice, limiting gay marriage, why would repeal be necessary or helpful? For starters, we must remember that a judicial invalidation of a law and an injunction against its enforcement aren’t the same as getting rid of the law; the measure remains on the books, and conceivably could spring back to life if a different Governor or Attorney General tried to reopen the case and undo the federal court injunction by defending Proposition 8 on the merits (something Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown, and Attorneys General Brown and Harris, never did.) Cases (like Perry) that were never actually contested on the merits between the appropriate plaintiffs and defendants are—because of the absence of a true adversarial clash in the courtroom resulting in a judgment—strong candidates for reopening, should a particular Governor or Attorney General want to do so.
But, someone might respond, the political climate in California is moving in the opposite direction—in favor of, not against, same-sex marriage. So the likelihood of a new Governor or Attorney General trying to resurrect Proposition 8—especially after hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples in the state already get married—is very slim. I think that’s probably true. But remember that Governors and Attorney Generals get elected based on many issues, and they may win office in spite of, rather than because of, their position on any one subject. Moreover, after they assume office, they sometimes take actions that seem to go against the views of a majority of voters, as Schwarzenegger and Brown themselves did when they refused to defend Proposition 8 when the Perry lawsuit was filed in 2009, a time when the state’s electorate may very well still have favored the measure.
But all that brings me to the second, and more important, reason to repeal Proposition 8: It no longer reflects the views of Californians, and state law on fundamental questions like this ought to accord with the true beliefs of state voters. Proposition 8 passed in 2008 by a 52-48 margin, and a recent LATimes opinion poll suggests that a similar measure today would be supported by only 38% of voters, with 56% favoring same-sex marriage equality—a huge change in just five years. But the only poll with true credibility is the one at the ballot box itself, and so Californians should revisit Proposition 8 in an election the next year or so.
And having California’s laws line up with California’s values will matter to people outside California as well. As is now clear, after the Supreme Court’s actions earlier this summer, the struggle over same-sex marriage rights in the United States continues to be waged in many, if not most, of the 35 or so states that do not allow same-sex marriage. Having California in the “yes” column on same-sex marriage as a result of an election, rather than as the product of the actions of a small number of persons (a Governor and Attorney General who declined to defend, and an unelected District Court judge who issued an injunction), is important for political purposes in other states and, ultimately, for constitutional purposes when the U.S. Supreme Court returns to same-sex marriage rights—as it will almost certainly have to—in the coming years. In Perry and United States v. Windsor (the case involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA) a month ago, the Court was able to avoid the question whether there is a national constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but it will have to answer that question directly in the next decade or so. And there is broad agreement that the Court is keenly aware of national consensuses and national trends when it decides the content and scope of national constitutional rights (whether or not such awareness ought to be relevant). Having California (which alone houses about 12% of all Americans) join the ranks of the same-sex marriage states through an affirmative act of its electorate will maximize its clout in these national processes.
The Logistics of Repeal: Getting a Repeal Measure on the Ballot
Many measures that (like a repeal of Proposition 8) stand a good chance of success before the voters are nonetheless never acted upon because of the cost (often about a few million dollars) and headache of gathering the signatures required to qualify an initiative for California’s statewide ballot. But signature-gathering isn’t the only way to get a measure on the ballot in California; if 2/3 of each house of the state legislature votes to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, the amendment is offered to the electorate. For decades this route has seemed an unlikely one, because major ballot measures are often very polarizing along party lines, and neither political party has controlled 2/3 of each house of the legislature. But today (and barring any very unusual events, for the next year at least) Democrats can be assured of occupying 2/3 of the seats of the California Assembly and Senate. And there may very well be a number of Republican legislators who think that California voters should be given the chance to weigh in again on same-sex marriage, since the landscape has changed so much over the last half-decade. So there seems to be a window for the California legislature to act, to let California voters speak once again on this most important of questions. And even though some significant money may have to be spent in the ad campaign to get such a repeal enacted, I would expect—given the salience of this topic in California over the last few years and the movement reflected in recent opinion polls—the amount of money need not be that great, and in any event would be well-spent, given the alternative: months and perhaps years of technical wrangling in the state and federal courts, leading to an outcome that cannot easily to be said to derive from the California people themselves.