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BASF responds to Los Angeles Times article

Association defends judge in Perry same-sex marriage case

August 30, 2010
To: The Los Angeles Times

We are writing on behalf of The Bar Association of San Francisco, a legal professional membership organization comprised of nearly 8,000 members that works to elevate the standards of integrity, honor, and respect in the practice of law. 

We disagree with assistant managing editor David Lauter’s claim that the sexual orientation of Northern District of California Chief Judge Vaughn Walker is relevant to the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the Perry same-sex marriage case over which Judge Walker presided.  Lauter states that judges “bring the totality of their life experience to the cases on which they rule.  As a result, certain aspects of their humanity are relevant to note in news stories.”  Yet Lauter acknowledges if the judge deciding the case was heterosexual, the Times probably would not have reported it. 

This is a double standard that undermines our judicial system and legitimizes a presumption that a gay judge’s sexual orientation makes his or her decisions suspect in a case regarding same-sex equal rights when no such presumption attaches with respect to heterosexual judges.  Indeed, if this “totality of life experience” were so relevant to the Times, why did it not report on the sexual orientation of the heterosexual trial court judge who originally struck down the same-sex marriage ban in 2005, finding that it violated the California Constitution prior to its amendment under Proposition 8?  Why did the Times not report on the sexual orientation of each California Supreme Court justice who handled the same-sex marriage cases on appeal?  Was it not newsworthy to the Times under its “totality of life experience” standard that the four justices in the Supreme Court’s majority recognizing same-sex marriages in 2008 were heterosexual?  Is sexual orientation only newsworthy when a gay judge presides over a case involving lesbian or gay citizens?

Of course, now that the Times has articulated this new standard of relevance, it should at least walk the talk and apply it fairly to all judges. Even if it wanted to eliminate this double standard by applying Lauter’s “certain aspects of their humanity” benchmark just to all judges hearing the Perry appeals, however, it would be a formidable undertaking.  Such reporting would require accurate disclosure of each judge’s sexual orientation, marital status, religious background and beliefs, biological relationship to his or her children, and perhaps other factors.  Even if such information could be obtained, it should be evident that such characteristics, by themselves, are irrelevant to an individual’s ability to be fair and impartial and are not the legitimate subjects of news coverage.  The same filter should have been applied here.

Judge Walker has a long and illustrious record as a jurist.  Nothing in that career or in his handling of the Perry case reflects that he has not fairly and objectively reviewed the facts and reached decisions in his courtroom based solely on the established law.  We object to your newspaper’s reporting beyond the facts and legal analysis of the case to inject irrelevant and potentially inflammatory information about the personal characteristics of a judge.  Doing so reflects a misguided presumption of heterosexual normativity that unfairly undermines the public’s confidence in the rule of law based on biased assumptions about the impartiality of anyone without a heterosexual sexual orientation. 



Arturo J. González
2010 President
The Bar Association of San Francisco

The Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) is a nonprofit voluntary membership organization of over 8,000 attorneys, law students and legal professionals in the Bay Area. Founded in 1872, BASF is one of the largest and most dynamic metropolitan bar associations in the U.S., with a long and distinguished record of community action, public service and service to the legal profession.

Questions about media relations, BASF issues currently in the news, San Francisco Attorney magazine, marketing and communications:

Ann Murphy, Director of Communications & Public Relations
(415) 782-9000 x8792

For general communications inquiries:

Sayre Happich, Assistant Director of Communications & Public Relations
(415) 782-9000 x8104