Gay jurist in Proposition 8 case had no legal obligation to remove himself, judge rules [Updated]
A federal judge on Tuesday refused to invalidate last year's ruling against Proposition 8, deciding the gay jurist who overturned the same-sex marriage ban had no obligation to step aside because of a possible conflict of interest.
The decision by Chief Judge James Ware of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco left the ruling by retired Judge Vaughn R. Walker in place. Walker’s decision remains on hold pending a separate appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Walker, a Republican appointee, has never said publicly whether he wished to marry his partner. But he told reporters that he never considered his sexual orientation grounds for declining to preside over the Proposition 8 challenge.
"It is not reasonable to presume that a judge is incapable of making an impartial decision about the constitutionality of a law, solely because, as a citizen, the judge could be affected by the proceedings," Ware wrote in his ruling.
The chief judge said all Californians share an interest in having the the Constitution enforced. The "single interest" Walker shared with the same-sex couples who challenged Proposition 8 "gave him no greater interest in a proper decision on the merits that would exist for any other judge or citizen," Ware wrote.
[Updated, 2 p.m.: Ware said it was unreasonable to assume from Walker's relationship that he had such a great interest in marrying that he was incapable of performing his judicial duties.
"The mere fact that a judge is in a relationship with another person -- whether of the same sex or the opposite sex -- does not ipso facto imply that the judge must be so interested in marrying that person that he would be unable to exhibit the impartiality which, it is presumed, all federal judges maintain."
To assume Walker had a conflict of interest would be speculation based on "unsubstantiated suspicion that the judge is personally biased or prejudiced," Ware continued.
The chief judge also said that Walker's failure to disclose his same-sex relationship prior to his ruling could mean that he had considered the situation and decided that no reasonable observer would conclude that his impartiality was questionable.
"Silence is by its very nature ambiguous and thus is open to multiple interpretation," Ware wrote.
If Walker had disclosed "intimate but irrelevant details of his personal life," he could have "set a pernicious precedent" for other judges by promoting disclosure of highly personal information, Ware said.
Chad Griffin, who formed a civil rights group that launched the federal case, said Ware's ruling "erased all doubt that the Prop. 8 trial was anything but fair and thorough and sent a powerful message that extreme fringe groups cannot strong-arm the law."
Peter Renn, attorney with Lambda Legal, a gay rights legal advocacy group, said Ware's ruling "decisively rejected an outrageous attack on the integrity of Judge Walker, not to mention judges in general."
"Prop. 8 was declared unconstitutional because it is unconstitutional -- not because the judge is gay," Renn said.
A spokesperson for ProtectMarriage could not immediately be reached.]
Charles Cooper, the lead attorney for ProtectMarriage, said the group would appeal Ware's motion and "continue our tireless efforts to defend the will of the people of California to preserve marriage as the union of a man and a woman."
Tuesday's ruling followed a three-hour hearing Monday in San Francisco in which backers of Proposition 8 argued that Walker had a personal stake in the outcome of the marriage debate while opponents of the ban countered that the challenge was a veiled attack on Walker's sexual orientation.
No court has ever upheld the removal of a judge from a civil rights case because of his or her race, religion or gender, according to lawyers in the case.
-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco
Photo: Judge Vaughn R. Walker, now retired, speaks at a news conference in April. Credit: Beff Diefenbach / Reuters