Home > LGBT, US politics > Perry v. Schwarzenegger – Gay marriage rights on trial

Perry v. Schwarzenegger – Gay marriage rights on trial

Today in California, one of the most significant debate on whether gay and lesbian couples should have equal rights to marriage is coming to a conclusion. This is the federal case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which is at the stage of closing statements from both teams, which is hoping to overturn Proposition 8, which passed an amendment to the Californian constitution banning gays and lesbians from marrying under the Californian Constitution. This was passed on 4 November 2008, the same date Barack Obama was elected president.

When I first heard of the case last summer was being taken at a federal level, I was a little wary. I felt that given this would eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court, and that given the delicate balance of the Supreme Court, it was likely that Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing voter, would ensure at least 5-4 against the plaintiffs, and set back the case of marriage equality for a decade or so. Many of the groups who had campaigned against Prop 8 felt similarly.

Now, after the close of hearings,  I’m more optimistic about the benefits of the case. It made news because it brought to together the conservative Ted Olson and the liberal David Boies, who had been on opposing sides in Bush v. Gore in 2000, jointly representing the plaintiffs, two couples who had failed to get married during the period where it was possible for them in 2008. They were backed by the newly formed American Foundation for Equal Rights, which had on its board John Podesta, former Clinton White Chief of Staff and President of the Center for American Progress, and Robert Levy, President of the Cato Institute, one of the leading libertarian think-tanks.

Considering the proceedings of the court to date, I would not be surprised if the case was ruled in the plaintiffs’ favour, given the weak evidence and reliance on research from anti-gay activists like George Rekers who were over-compensating for their own repressed homosexuality. But even if it were to fail, and to fail again on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, good will come from the nature of the evidence presented.

If it does fail, it will probably not be opposition’s case that allowing any couple to marry would undermine the state’s interest in encouraging marriage for the benefit of children, or that the institution of marriage in society would in some way be weakened. If it fails, it will most likely be because of a judgement that as the people believed there was a rational basis for denying marriage rights, the court is not in a position to overrule them.

The benefits of the case, whatever the outcome, is threefold. On the one hand, it has provided the most thorough setting in which the arguments of both sides have been scrutinized, and the fault lines and weaknesses highlighted. Whatever the next forum for this debate, it now must take place at a more informed level. Secondly, the symbolic effect of the legal team and its backers matters. The right of gay couples to marry is being seen less and less as a matter of left against right, of liberals against conservatives. For Levy and Podesta to co-author an op-ed in the “Marriage equality for all couples”, will make more American start to question their preconceptions on the issue. As would Ted Olson article in Newsweek earlier this years, “The conservative case for gay marriage”. Finally, the lives of the four plaintiffs will seem familiar in their ordinariness to many: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier together ten years and raising four boys, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo nine years, all in very conventional careers.

The case rests on the belief that fundamental rights could not be decided by the people in referendum, but only by courts of law on the basis of the constitution. As summarized here on the conclusion of evidence, the plaintiffs’ case was threefold: that marriage is fundamental right, that gay couples and their children demonstrably benefit from being allowed to marry, and that there is no benefit to others in society by preventing them from doing so.

I look forward to reading Judge Walker’s judgement, whatever the outcome, and I believe it is not too unrealistic to maintain hope for this to be overturned. Of course, it will not end here, as further appeals are likely.

For in depth analysis of the proceedings of the trial from proponents of the plaintiffs, see Prop 8 Trial Tracker.

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