The sole fact that a federal judge shares the same circumstances or personal characteristics with other members of the general public, and that the judge could be affected by the outcome of a proceeding in the same way that other members of the general public would be affected, is not a basis for either recusal or disqualification under Section 455(b)(4).
Requiring recusal because a court issued an injunction that could provide some speculative future benefit to the presiding judge solely on the basis of the fact that the judge belongs to the class against whom the unconstitutional law was directed would lead to a Section 455(b)(4) standard that required recusal of minority judges in most, if not all, civil rights cases. Congress could not have intended such an unworkable recusal statute.
Alternatively, Defendant-Intervenors contend that Judge Walker should be disqualified because his same-sex relationship gave him a markedly greater interest in a case challenging restrictions on same-sex marriage than the interest held by the general public. The Court rejects this argument on two readily apparent grounds. First, it is inconsistent with the general principles of constitutional adjudication to presume that a member of a minority group reaps a greater benefit from application of the substantive protections of our Constitution than would a member of the majority. The fact that this is a case challenging a law on equal protection and due process grounds being prosecuted by members of a minority group does not mean that members of the minority group have a greater interest in equal protection and due process than the rest of society. In our society, a variety of citizens of different backgrounds coexist because we have constitutionally bound ourselves to protect the fundamental rights of one another from being violated by unlawful treatment. Thus, we all have an equal stake in a case that challenges the constitutionality of a restriction on a fundamental right. One of the duties placed on the shoulders of federal judges is the obligation to review the law to determine when unequal treatment violates our Constitution and when it does not. To the extent that a law is adjudged violative, enjoining enforcement of that law is a public good that benefits all in our society equally. Although this case was filed by same-sex couples seeking to end a California constitutional restriction on their right to marry, all Californians have an equal interest in the outcome of the case. The single characteristic that Judge Walker shares with the Plaintiffs, albeit one that might not have been shared with the majority of Californians, gave him no greater interest in a proper decision on the merits than would exist for any other judge or citizen.
Second, disqualifying Judge Walker based on an inference that he intended to take advantage of a future legal benefit made available by constitutional protections would result in an unworkable standard for disqualification. Under such a standard, disqualification would be based on assumptions about the amorphous personal feelings of judges in regards to such intimate and shifting matters as future desire to undergo an abortion, to send a child to a particular university or to engage in family planning. So too here, a test inquiring into the presiding judge’s desire to enter into the institution of marriage with a member of the same sex, now or in the future, would require reliance upon similarly elusive factors. Given Section 455(b)(4)’s requirement that non-pecuniary interests must be “substantially affected” to require recusal, recusal could turn on whether a judge “fervently” intended to marry a same-sex partner versus merely “lukewarmly” intended to marry, determination that could only be reached through undependable and invasive self-reports. The Ninth Circuit has recognized the inherent unworkability of such a subjective recusal standard.
To hold otherwise, and require recusal merely based on the fact that the presiding judge is
engaged in a long-term same-sex relationship, is to place an inordinate burden on minority judges. Such a standard would, in essence, infer subjective future intent on the basis of a judge’s membership in a particular class.
Finally, the presumption that “all people in same-sex relationships think alike” is an unreasonable presumption, and one which has no place in legal reasoning. The presumption that Judge Walker, by virtue of being in a same-sex relationship, had a desire to be married that rendered him incapable of making an impartial decision, is as warrantless as the presumption that a female judge is incapable of being impartial in a case in which women seek legal relief. On the contrary: it is reasonable to presume that a female judge or a judge in a same-sex relationship is capable of rising above any personal predisposition and deciding such a case on the merits. The Motion fails to cite any evidence that Judge Walker would be incapable of being impartial, but to presume that Judge Walker was incapable of being impartial, without concrete evidence to support that presumption, is inconsistent with what is required under a reasonableness standard.
Accordingly, the Court DENIES Defendant-Intervenors’ Motion to Vacate Judgment on the ground that the presiding judge failed to recuse himself under Section 455(a).
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Here are selected excerpts from a recent court ruling which denied the motion to overturn Judge Walker's decision to overturn Prop 8 based on his same-sex relationship. I must say that I also enjoyed reading this court case very much. Observing progress as it happens is a very pleasurable experience.