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Analyzing the Ninth Circuit’s Prop 8 Ruling

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by Justin Shubow
Posted February 09, 2012, 8:48 AM

The Ninth Circuit's striking down of Proposition 8, California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, is receiving a great deal of commentary, including from the Sacramento Bee and Ed Whelan at NRO.  At the Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter discusses the 2-1 opinion  by Judge Stephen Reinhardt:

In contrast to Judge Walker’s maximalist opinion striking down Prop 8, it’s generally accepted that Judge Reinhardt’s opinion [in Perry v. Brown] was minimalist.

There’s a commonsense way in which the opinion is not at all minimalist. It reverses the results of a plebiscite, which followed the expenditure of $80 million and the mobilization of millions of voters. It brings full same-sex marriage to a state whose cultural, political, and legal influence on the rest of the country outstrips even its massive population. It’s by far the biggest prize (sorry, New York) in the fight over gay marriage. Advocates on both sides know this. Winning California is not the beginning of the end, but it is at least the end of the beginning.

In legal terms, as well, minimalism may not precisely describe the opinion.  Reinhardt decided that Prop 8 was unconstitutional on Equal Protection grounds only in the specific and unusual circumstances of California, which are not likely to be repeated: full rights and non-marital status given to same-sex couples, followed by court-granted marital status, followed by actual marriages, followed by popular denial of marital status but leaving in place full rights. Whether the opinion can really be cabined to apply only to these unique circumstances is doubtful.  Can you really say, as a colleague of mine commented today, that the state must move you from the middle of the bus to the front, but not from the back of the bus to the front? But suppose the decision really is a constitutional ticket good-for-this-ride-only (like the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore). Minimalism is not the narrowest possible ground on which a court can rule.  It’s the narrowest plausible grounds on which a court can rule, with at least some theoretical underpinning that helps us understand it as a principled decision, even if a badly principled decision, rather than as simply an order.  The panel’s decision is not so much under-theorized in the way minimalists love; it hardly has any theory.  It is so minimalist one might call it minisculist.

Orin Kerr also weighs in:

Reading the blog and media reaction to Judge Reinhardt’s opinion for the Ninth Circuit in Perry v. Brown, it’s interesting how much it resembles the reaction to Judge Walker’s opinion at the District Court level. Most agree that both opinions were written solely for an audience of one, Justice Kennedy. In both cases, a lot of the reactions focus on whether the opinions successfully figured out a clever way to get Kennedy’s vote.

After Judge Walker’s opinion, for example, a lot of commenters thought Walker was particularly clever for announcing rather aggressive findings of fact that seemed to bleed over into the legal issues; the thought was that Walker could force the higher courts to see things his way because facts ordinarily are reviewed under the “clearly erroneous” standard instead of a de novo standard. After Reinhardt’s opinion, a lot of commenters have suggested that Reinhardt was particularly clever because he framed the issue narrowly under Romer, avoiding the broader questions of gay marriage.

I have no idea what the Supreme Court might do in the Perry case. But my own sense is that Judges Walker and Reinhardt are not quite as clever as some people seem to think. Or, at the very least, the reasoning of their opinions don’t really matter very much. First, I think it’s unlikely that the particular reasoning of either opinion will have a substantial influence on the Justices. The issues in Perry are extremely important, and they’re the kind of issues that force the Justices to fall back on first principles. The details of how the lower courts reached the results they reached matter a lot less in that kind of case than in an ordinary case. Consider how Judge Reinhardt dealt with Judge Walker’s extensive factual findings: He basically ignored them.

 

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