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Making a case for citing Proposition 8 judge's sexual orientation

August 25, 2010 |  3:54 pm

Walker 

U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker has been in the spotlight in recent months thanks to his role in the constitutional challenge to Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that deemed marriage to be between a man and a woman. Early this month, Walker struck down Proposition 8, calling the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, but that ruling has been put on hold by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the coverage of this story, many news outlets -- including The Times -- have reported that Walker is gay. Some, such as the New York Times, attributed this fact to "published reports." But the Los Angeles Times, among others, has not cited a source for this information.

In the wake of these reports, readers have called and e-mailed with the same fundamental questions:

How does The Times know Judge Walker is gay? And why is it relevant?

The Times first made reference to Walker’s sexual orientation in a profile by Maura Dolan on June 21. Describing anxiety felt by gay-rights activists when Walker was chosen at random to oversee the Proposition 8 case, Dolan wrote:

Although openly gay, Walker, 66, was considered a traitor by some gay activists for having represented the U.S. Olympic Committee in a trademark lawsuit against the Gay Olympics, Kendell said. [Kendall is Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.]

Since Walker’s ruling Aug. 4, The Times has regularly included the detail in news reports about the Proposition 8 case. Op-Ed columnist Patt Morrison addressed it on the Opinion L.A. blog as well. But readers are left to wonder about the source of this information.

Randall Gellens of San Diego e-mailed, "I have not seen a reference, quote or source for this supposed fact. Has Judge Walker said so?"

Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter, who oversees California coverage, responded that the fact that Walker is gay is well-known in San Francisco legal circles. Walker attends public functions with his male partner, Lauter said. "His friends, many of whom Maura interviewed for her profile, are very open in discussing his sexual orientation," Lauter said. "He doesn’t comment on it publicly, but that doesn’t mean he keeps it a secret."

The relevancy issue was broached soon after Walker began hearing the challenge to Proposition 8. A column in the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 7, which called Walker's orientation an "open secret,"  argued that it would not be an influence in his decision-making. Then after Walker’s ruling this month, some supporters of Proposition 8 claimed that because he was gay, the judge had a bias. The argument played out in dueling columns ("A biased ruling on gay marriage in California" and "Lose the ruling, attack the judge") Aug. 13 on The Times’ Op-Ed page.

Lauter said the decision to include Walker’s sexual orientation was based on fairness. Walker’s political background (he was nominated by President Reagan and appointed by President George H.W. Bush) was included for the same reason, Lauter said. "Both -- ideology and sexuality -- are factors that a reasonable person could see as having an impact on a judge’s view of a controversial issue such as same-sex marriage."

If the judge hearing the case were heterosexual, would that have been noted? Lauter acknowledged that it probably would not. 

Henry Fuhrmann, an assistant managing editor who leads the newsroom’s Standards and Practices Committee as well as the copy desks, notes that the Times stylebook cautions against "outing" people as gay.

"In this case," he said, "there is ample evidence to support our references to Walker’s sexual orientation. But it would have been prudent to attribute that fact to make the matter absolutely clear to readers, especially in a profile that might come to be seen as a definitive story. If the copy desk didn’t ask, I think we should have."

Lauter explained further: "Judges are human beings, and they bring the totality of their life experience to the cases on which they rule. As a result, certain aspects of their humanity are relevant to note in news stories. This is one of them."

-- Deirdre Edgar

RELATED:

NPR ombudsman: Judge Walker is gay. Are you sure? Does it matter?

Salon.com: Is Judge Vaughn Walker really gay?

Photo: Judge Vaughn R. Walker in his 17th-floor courtroom. Credit: Nathan Weyland / For The Times


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