Given ample chance during a 13-day trial to offer an argument apart from prejudice, proponents of Proposition 8, the prohibition against same-sex marriage in California, found no evidence. Now they are trying to disqualify Vaughn Walker, the now-retired Federal District Court judge who ruled that the measure was unconstitutional.
After the trial, Judge Walker said he is gay and involved in a long-term relationship. Last week, Proposition 8’s lawyers argued that the ruling should be tossed out because he had had a duty to recuse himself, or at least disclose the relationship at the start of the case.
The claim is bogus. It is well established that personal characteristics, like race, sex, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, do not by themselves invoke the rule that judges must step aside if their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
Our justice system relies on trusting members of the nation’s diverse bench to put aside their personal characteristics and abide by their duty of even-handedness. Any other approach would invite foolish and unacceptable results — female judges being kept from hearing rape or sexual discrimination cases, or black judges from hearing cases involving racial bias or civil rights.
Indeed, following the open-ended logic of Proposition 8’s lawyers, it is hard to think who, if anyone, is qualified to rule on this case. Certainly not wedded heterosexual judges whose marriages stand to be somehow diminished, according to the antimarriage crowd, if Judge Walker’s ruling survives appeal in federal circuit court.
Some ethics experts say the ruling might have triggered credible conflict-of-interest concerns if Judge Walker were intending to marry in California. But that is misguided, too. There is no basis to think Judge Walker’s personal relationship played a role in his ruling on the evidence and on whether a constitutional reason exists to limit anyone’s freedom to marry.
The idea that a seasoned, Republican-appointed jurist was unfit to hear the case, and that his decision should be set aside on flimsy ethics grounds, is preposterous.