Judge Vaughn Walker

  • June 15, 2011

    The gay marriage movement scored two victories yesterday in California, with a federal district court judge rejecting conflict-of-interest allegations in the decision to strike down Proposition 8, and a bankruptcy court holding the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

    In federal district court, Chief U.S. District Judge James Ware held that his predecessor, Vaughn Walker, was not biased in his review of California’s same-sex marriage ban by the fact that he was in a long-term relationship with a man, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

    "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 U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California, a judge issued a “rare and sweeping ruling” holding that two legally married men should be allowed to file for bankruptcy jointly and that the Defense of Marriage Act, which would have precluded joint filing, violates the couple’s equal protection rights under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, The Recorder reports.

    “In this court’s judgment, no legally married couple should be entitled to fewer bankruptcy rights than any other legally married couple,” Judge Thomas Donovan wrote.

    Eighteen of Donovan’s 24 colleagues signed onto his ruling, which Penn State Law’s Samuel Bufford, a former bankruptcy judge on that court, called “highly unusual.”

    The ruling on Proposition 8 was much less surprising, with legal ethics experts from across the political spectrum dismissing the challenge as “specious as well as desperate,” as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick put it.

  • May 16, 2011

    The effort by proponents of California’s anti-gay marriage law, Proposition 8, to invalidate last year’s federal court opinion finding it unconstitutional because the judge who issued the opinion is gay reveals the wobbly arguments against marriage equality, writes UCLA law professor Adam Winkler.

    In this piece for The Huffington Post, Winkler says “ironies abound” over the marriage equality opponents’ arguments that the opinion should be invalidated because Judge Vaughn R. Walker (pictured), now retired, “stood to gain personally from ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.” That is, Winkler notes, if California were to recognize same-sex marriage, Walker might be “able to take advantage of that opportunity and secure any and all of the benefits that accrue from marriage.”

    Winkler continues:

    Writing in the National Review Online, conservative legal commentator Ed Whelan admits that marriage is a "valuable legal right." That is correct -- and exactly why states shouldn't be able to deny gays and lesbians the ability to marry. It's a violation of the Constitution's command that all people be afforded "equal protection of the laws" to deny people fundamental rights on the basis of irrelevant characteristics, like their race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. Yet that is precisely what the ban on same-sex marriage does.

    Implicit in Proposition 8 supporters' effort to recuse Judge Walker is the notion that, unlike a gay judge who might benefit from marriage, a heterosexual judge would be impartial. But to accept that notion, we must reject another central claim in the case against same-sex marriage: that gay marriage undermines the traditional institution marriage.

  • April 26, 2011

    A Religious Right organization is urging a federal court in California to invalidate the 2010 decision striking the state’s anti-gay marriage law, Proposition 8, because the judge who issued that opinion is gay, the Los Angeles Times reports.

    The newspaper notes, “In a court filing, the sponsors of the ban on gay marriage, ProtectMarriage, asked the chief judge of the federal court in San Francisco to nullify last August’s ruling by former U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who retired earlier this year.”

    The group’s filing states, “Judge Walker’s 10-year-long same-sex relationship creates the unavoidable impression that he was not the impartial judge the law requires.”

    SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston provides analysis of the group’s filing and link to it. He writes that the filing is the “latest effort by the measure’s supporters to challenge Judge Walker; they have pending in the Circuit Court a request to block any further public release of the videotape of the trial in his court, contending he has wrongly made public portions of that recording, which is now under seal after the Supreme Court blocked public broadcasting of the trial itself.”

    In post for Legal Ethics Forum, University of Minnesota Law School Professor Richard W. Painter, the former White House Chief Ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, took issue with a couple of bloggers who also charged that Judge Walker should not have heard the Prop. 8 case.

    “The absurdity of this claim is obvious,” Painter wrote. “The mere fact that a judge belongs to a class of persons affected by a case does not require recusal.”

    In other events regarding the struggle to advance marriage equality, The New York Times reports on one of the nation’s largest law firms, King & Spalding, and its decision to step away from defending the anti-gay law, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), in court. Since the Obama administration announced earlier this year that it would stop defending the law in court, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives turned to outside counsel to defend the law, and tapped King & Spalding attorney Paul D. Clement.

    Clement, a former U.S. Solicitor General in the Bush administration, resigned from the law firm yesterday after it decided to drop the case. Clement, the newspaper reports, will represent the Republicans’ argument against DOMA as a partner at Bancroft PLLC.

    Announcing his resignation from King & Spalding, Clement said, “Defending unpopular clients is what lawyers do.”

    King & Spalding Chairman Robert D. Hayes Jr. said in a statement that the firm inadequately vetted the case and should not have agreed to take it. The Times noted a clause in the House contract that barred the “firm’s lawyers from any advocacy for or against bills that would or repeal the marriage act.”

    Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, lauded King & Spalding for dumping the case.

    “In America, every person deserves a defense, but not every position does,” Wolfson said in a press statement. “King & Spalding has recognized what President Obama, the Department of Justice, and many members of Congress have joined Freedom to Marry in concluding: federal marriage discrimination and the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ are indefensible.”   


  • April 21, 2011

    U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who ruled last year that California’s anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8 violates the constitutional rights of lesbians and gay men, has been wrongly maligned by conservative bloggers, writes University of Minnesota Law School Professor Richard W. Painter.  

    Painter, the former White House Chief Ethics Lawyer for President George W. Bush, writes that the two National Review Online bloggers have brought the “recusal debate” to a new low.

    The bloggers, Painter writes at Legal Ethics Forum, have accused Walker (pictured), now retired, “of unethical conduct because (i) they do not agree with his decision in the case, (ii) the case involved same-sex marriage in California, and (iii) Judge Walker lives in California and has a relationship with another man. Never mind that the Judge has not sought a marriage license. His hearing and deciding the case was a ‘rampant course of misconduct.’”

    Painter, who does not agree with Judge Walker’s opinion in the Prop. 8 case, continues:

    The absurdity of this claim is obvious. The mere fact that a judge belongs to a class of persons affected by a case does not require recusal. If this were the rule, women judges could not sit on sex discrimination cases – and neither could men judges for that matter. Black judges could not sit on race discrimination cases – and neither could white judges. And so on. Wrong.

    What is unfortunate is that the argument here is not only ludicrous, but that the National Review bloggers have framed it in language that shows their own bias – both against a highly regarded federal judge and against an entire class of persons.

    Judge Walker, who was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, should take comfort in the fact that he is in good company. The same tag team of bloggers has attacked the lawyer in the same case, famed GOP litigator Ted Olson who argued and won Bush v. Gore.

    The case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

  • August 12, 2010
    Religious Right activists' arguments that U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who issued the recent decision striking California's anti-gay marriage law, Proposition 8, is unfit to hear the case because of his sexual orientation are reminiscent of the arguments challenging "the impartiality of black judges presiding over civil rights cases 30 years ago," writes Professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill for The Root.

    Ifill, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, notes that the Family Research Council and the American Family Association have both issued missives arguing that Judge Walker should recuse himself because of some "published reports" that he is gay. "This is an ugly and desperate charge - among the worst one can make against a judge: that he allowed his personal interests to dictate the outcome of a case. It should be answered swiftly and decisively, because the implications of this charge extend far beyond the Prop. 8 case," Ifill says.

    Ifill continues:

    Rumors about Judge Walker's sexual orientation were well-known to attorneys for the state of California long before the trial concerning Prop. 8. Why, then, didn't the State of California file a motion seeking the recusal of Judge Walker? The simple reason is that Judge Walker's sexual orientation - whether gay or straight - is not an appropriate basis for a recusal motion. In fact, suggestions that Judge Walker's sexual orientation is evidence of bias is the kind of argument that was firmly discredited in a series of cases challenging the impartiality of black judges to decide civil rights cases.


    In perhaps the most famous of these cases, lawyers representing the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell requested that federal district judge Constance Baker Motley recuse herself from hearing a case brought by women lawyers at the firm who charged discrimination in hiring and promotion. The law firm's motion for recusal was based on Judge Motley's status as a black woman and her professional experience as a former civil rights lawyer. The late Judge Motley is most famously known as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) lawyer who litigated nearly all of the cases seeking to desegregate universities throughout the South. [The ACS annual moot court competition is named after Motley - the Constance Baker Motley National Moot Court Competition in Constitutional Law.] She represented James Meredith in his contentious and ultimately successful battle for admission to the University of Mississippi. After leaving the LDF, she served at a New York assemblywoman and as borough president of Manhattan.

    When the recusal motion was brought against her in 1975 in the law firm case, Motley refused to withdraw from presiding over the case, offering the now classic explanation that "if background or sex or race of each judge were, by definition, sufficient grounds for removal, no judge on this court could hear this case, or many others, by virtue of the fact that all of them were attorneys, of a sex, often with distinguished law firm or public service backgrounds."

    Ifill's entire piece is available here. See here for additional information about Judge Walker's decision in the Prop. 8 case.