Gay judge for Prop 8 trial: open secret, non-issue

The biggest open secret in the same-sex marriage trial underway in San Francisco has been the general knowledge that presiding Judge Vaughn Walker is himself gay. It became less secret and more open today, thanks to a piece in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle by columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross.

Many gay politicians in San Francisco and lawyers who have had dealings with Walker say the 65-year-old jurist, appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, has never taken pains to disguise – or advertise – his orientation.

They also don’t believe it will influence how he rules on the case he’s now hearing – whether Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure approved by state voters to ban same-sex marriage, unconstitutionally discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Gay rights supporters, as well as many on the other side of this case, say they would not expect the sexual orientation of the unpredictable jurist to become an issue. Walker was, in fact, loudly condemned by the LGBT community for representing the U.S. Olympic Committee in their successful suit to keep the San Francisco Gay Games from using the ‘Olympics’ name when he was a private attorney.

“There is nothing about Walker as a judge to indicate that his sexual orientation, other than being an interesting factor, will in any way bias his view,” said Kate Kendell, head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is supporting the lawsuit to overturn Prop. 8.

Matier and Ross quoted a federal judge friend of Walker who said Walker had some concern that people might conclude he wants to conceal his sexuality, but that it is part of his private life and irrelevant to any decision-making. The friend, who asked not to be identified “because of the sensitive nature of the Prop. 8 trial” further commented,

As evidence, she cites the judge’s conservative – albeit libertarian – reputation, and says, “There wasn’t anyone who thought (overturning Prop.8) was a cakewalk given his sexual orientation.”

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who has sponsored two bills to authorize same-sex marriage that were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that as far as he’s concerned, Walker’s background is a nonissue. “It seems curious to me,” he said, that when the state Supreme Court heard a challenge to Prop. 8, the justices’ sexual orientation “was never discussed.”

Leno added, “I have great respect for Judge Walker, professionally and personally.”

Matier and Ross quoted a federal judge friend of Walker who said Walker had some concern that people might conclude he wants to conceal his sexuality, but that it is part of his private life and irrelevant to any decision-making. The friend, who asked not to be identified “because of the sensitive nature of the Prop. 8 trial” further commented,

Is it newsworthy?” he said of Walker’s orientation, and laughed. “Yes.”He said it was hard to ignore the irony that “in the beginning, when (Walker) sought to be a judge, a major obstacle he had to overcome was the perception that he was anti-gay.”

In short, the friend said, Walker’s background is relevant in the same way people would want to know that a judge hearing a discrimination case involving Latinos was Latino or a Jewish judge was ruling in a case involving the Anti-Defamation League.

There has been some talk around town that if the judge rules Prop. 8 unconstitutional and the  case goes as expected to the Supreme Court, Prop. 8 supporters will indeed raise the issue of Walker’s sexual orientation; and this was noted by the columnists.

Not so, said Andy Pugno, general counsel for the group that sponsored the Prop. 8 campaign.”We are not going to say anything about that,” Pugno said.

He was quick to assert, however, that Prop. 8 backers haven’t gotten a fair shake from Walker in court. He cited both the judge’s order for the campaign to turn over thousands of pages of internal memos to the other side and Walker’s decision to allow the trial to be broadcast – both of which were overturned by higher courts.

“In many ways, the sponsors of Prop. 8 have been put at significant disadvantage throughout the case,” Pugno said. “Regardless of the reason for it.”

Who’s getting the breaks and advantages in the case, now being considered by the judge, is a matter of who’s doing the analysis.

Judge being gay a nonissue during Prop. 8 trial.

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