Gay-marriage foes slam plans to televise Prop 8 trial

Supporters of traditional marriage are outraged over a California judge’s efforts to bring television cameras into court next week to cover a trial challenging Proposition 8, California’s initiative against gay marriage.

Judge Vaughn R. Walker, chief judge of the Northern District of California, proposed a last-minute revision of the court’s rules that would allow television coverage of the trial. Those who want to comment have until Friday, and the trial begins Monday.

Attorneys for Proposition 8 backers said television coverage would expose their witnesses to further harassment and intimidation. Backers of Proposition 8 were targeted for harassment in the months after the initiative’s passage in November 2008. Some donors received threatening e-mails, letters and phone calls, while churches and businesses were singled out for boycotts and protests.

Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, which campaigned for Proposition 8 but isn’t a party to the case, said he is worried about the safety of witnesses, who could include contributors, campaign staff and volunteers.

“The question is really whether Judge Walker can put people on the stand where they can be threatened,” said Mr. Brown. “It’s a question of people’s safety.”

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday in San Francisco, said David Madden, a spokesman for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

He said the rules and parameters for any televised coverage were under discussion, including decisions on how many cameras to allow, where to place the cameras, and whose cameras would be permitted in the courtroom.

“We’re trying to work this all out,” said Mr. Madden. “We want to make sure people know we’re being very cautious about this.”

The court ordinarily bans television, radio and photography, but the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit announced Dec. 17 that it approved on an experimental basis “the limited use of cameras in federal courts within the system.”

“We hope that being able to see and hear what transpires in the courtroom will lead to a better public understanding of our judicial processes and enhanced confidence in the rule of law,” said 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. “The experiment is designed to help us find the right balance between the public’s right to access to the courts and the parties’ right to a fair and dignified proceeding.”

Since 1991, the 9th Circuit has allowed some television and radio broadcasting of oral arguments with the approval of the judges hearing the case, according to a statement issued by the court.

Those backing cameras in the courtroom include a consortium of media outlets as well as gay rights groups. The Courage Campaign on Tuesday sent an alert asking its members to sign a petition in favor of television coverage.

“The case presents issues that are very important to the public, and will affect millions of people,” said Rick Jacobs, chairman of the Courage Campaign, a group that advocates gay marriage. “However, if the case is not televised, only a tiny fraction will ever be able to watch the trial in person.

“By televising the trial, the public will be able to see for themselves the arguments and evidence presented by both sides, and will therefore have more confidence in the outcome of the trial,” he said.

Meanwhile, opponents of same-sex marriage point out that the experimental use of cameras was intended initially for low-profile cases, while the Proposition 8 trial has generated huge media interest.

The lawsuit, filed in June by two same-sex couples, argues that Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitution. Representing the plaintiffs are high-profile lawyers Theodore Olson and David Boies, who argued on opposite sides of the U.S. Supreme Court case to decide the 2000 presidential election.

Critics have accused Judge Walker of judicial bias, pointing to an earlier ruling against Proposition 8. Attorneys for the plaintiffs had asked to see internal Proposition 8 campaign communications, arguing that they might reveal attempts to create a “discriminatory animus” against gays.

Judge Walker ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but a federal appeals court panel in December reversed his decision.

“Judge Walker has not shown himself to be an impartial judge in this case,” said Mr. Brown. “He has attempted to make this entire process a circus, and he wants to be the ringleader by putting it on television.”

The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing same-sex marriage in May 2008, but the decision was overruled six months later by Proposition 8, which California voters approved by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

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