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District Court Judge Strikes Down Prop 8 as Unconstitutional

In a wide-ranging, powerful decision, Judge Vaughn Walker declares Proposition 8 unconstitutional, arguing that it violates gay couples’ equal protection rights as well as their due process rights to a fundamental right to marry.  In his opinion, Judge Walker presents 80 findings of fact regarding same-sex marriage, which include discussions about the immutability of sexual orientation, the ability of same-sex couples to be good parents, and the inequality of providing gay and lesbian couples with civil unions as opposed to full marriages.  These findings of fact are highly significant, because while appellate courts can overturn a lower court’s decision based on its findings of law, they usually defer to those courts’ findings of fact.

Significantly, because Judge Walker rules that the plaintiffs are seeking to exercise their fundamental right to marry, he relies in his decision on what is called strict scrutiny.  When a court considers an equal protection challenge to a law that applies certain rules to specific groups of people, that court must decide the level of constitutional scrutiny it will apply.  Essentially, the question before the court when it comes to scrutiny is whether or not a law should be looked at deferentially, as though it is likely to be constitutional, or whether it should be considered critically, as though it is likely to be unconstitutional.

The higher level, strict scrutiny, is used when a law affects a fundamental right or targets what is known as a suspect class (for example, classes based on race, nation of origin, sex or religion.)  Under strict scrutiny, classifications must be substantially related to an important governmental interest.  Laws that do not affect fundamental rights or protected classes are subject to the more deferential rational basis scrutiny, under which laws must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest to pass.

Most laws can pass rational basis scrutiny; many fewer can pass strict scrutiny.  As Judge Walker notes in his ruling, the state bears the burden of proof under strict scrutiny to prove that Prop 8 was passed to further a specific, compelling governmental interest.  In his decision, he holds that it does not.  In doing so, he also makes the argument that sexual orientation should be considered a suspect class (and therefore always deserving of strict scrutiny), which the Supreme Court has not yet recognized in any case law.

Furthermore, Judge Walker goes one step further and writes in his decision that although he believes strict scrutiny should be applied when considering Proposition 8, Prop 8 would also fail rational basis scrutiny, writing that “excluding same-sex couples from marriage is simply not rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”

Judge Walker issues an order against Prop 8, writing, “Plaintiffs have demonstrated by overwhelming evidence that Proposition 8 violates their due process and equal protection rights and that they will continue to suffer these constitutional violations until state officials cease enforcement of Proposition 8.”  He places a temporary stay on the order which prohibits marriages for gay and lesbian couples from commencing in California, and promises to revisit that stay shortly after hearing arguments from both sides about leaving it in place or lifting it.

In his decision, Judge Walker also denies Imperial County’s request to intervene in defense of Prop 8, writing that it was not filed in a timely manner.

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