Retired federal Judge Vaughn Walker is used to hearing complicated legal cases. Now he finds himself at the center of what some legal scholars are calling an “unprecedented” legal challenge.
At issue is Judge Walker’s 10-year, same-sex relationship while he was presiding over the Proposition 8 case in California. Proposition 8 was approved by California voters in November of 2008 and says, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The measure passed with 52.5 percent of the popular vote.
In August of 2010, then Chief U.S. District Judge Walker overturned Proposition 8, declaring the state’s ban on homosexual marriage “unconstitutional.”
Walker stepped down in February of this year after a 20-year career on the bench. Soon after he announced his retirement he confirmed that he was gay. Reports of his relationship with a same-sex partner then surfaced.
Attorneys representing the sponsors of California’s gay marriage ban are asking the chief federal judge in San Francisco to vacate Walker’s decision. However, the more intriguing part of today’s case will be Walker’s same-sex relationship.
While considered a “stretch,” the argument Walker should have revealed his homosexual relationship and excused himself from the case may not set legal precedent as much as bring further contention to an already volatile issue.
In an editorial published today in the Sacramento Bee, California attorney Courtney Powers argues Walker, or any other judge, should not have to reveal their private lives when hearing court cases.
“Requiring judges to reveal the details of their private lives and opine about their future would compromise their privacy, autonomy, dignity and ability to control their personal relationships with others – all values Americans expert from one another and their government,” argued Powers.
University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter said in an interview with the Silicon Valley Mercury News, “I don’t think recusal is justified. I think the holding (on Proposition 8) is wrong on the law … but the holding is not wrong because the judge himself is gay or because he lives with another man. That is irrelevant.”
Proposition 8 supporters are taking a different approach in presenting their arguments in court papers. “Such a personal interest in his own marriage would place Chief Justice Walker in precisely the same shoes as the two couples who brought the case,” they wrote in court papers.
“In this case, Judge Walker’s actions have violated timeless rules for judges. His decision not to recuse himself from this case is in conflict with what federal law demands of a judge who has an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding,” said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Legal Counsel Austin R. Nimocks.
Walker, who is 67 years old now, declined to issue a statement on the hearing. He did state in a prior interview that he never felt his same-sex relationship was relevant to the Proposition 8 case or that he had any obligation to disclose it to attorneys on either side of the case.
Regardless, legal scholars and parties on both sides of the issue will be watching today’s proceedings with great interest.