A Suit Too Soon?

First published at 365gay.com on May 29, 2009

President Truman’s quip about wanting a one-handed economist—so that he would cease being told, “On the one hand…on the other hand…”—pretty well sums up my reaction to the news that Ted Olson and David Boies are spearheading a federal lawsuit challenging California’s Prop. 8.

Olson and Boies are two of the most prominent constitutional lawyers in the country—as evidenced by the fact that they represented George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively, before the U.S. Supreme Court in “Bush v. Gore,” which decided the 2000 election. And yes, they are from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Olson—who initiated the alliance—is a well known conservative heavyweight. In addition to representing Bush against Gore, he was the 43rd president’s first solicitor general, has served on the board of the right-wing American Spectator, and defended President Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal.

On the one hand, WTF?

On the other hand, there are increasing numbers of political conservatives who think that the standard right-wing position on gays is not just silly, but profoundly unjust. Olson appeared sincere and determined as he announced the lawsuit, together with Boies, at a press conference last Wednesday [http://www.equalrightsfoundation.org/]. As he put it,

“I suspect there’s not a single person in this room that doesn’t have a friend or family member of close acquaintance or professional colleague and many of them who are gay. And if you look into the eyes and hearts of people who are gay and talk to them about this issue, that reinforces in the most powerful way possible the fact that these individuals deserve to be treated equally like the rest of us and not be denied the fundamental rights of our Constitution.”

I couldn’t have said it better (which is exactly how Boies responded to Olson’s words, patting his colleague and erstwhile nemesis on the back.)

On the other hand (that’s three, and there will be more), doesn’t the timing seem wrong? That’s what many veterans in this fight—including folks at Lambda Legal and the ACLU—are saying. Olson and Boies seem determined to press this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Call me a pessimist, but I can’t imagine the current or any near-future SCOTUS deciding in favor of full marriage equality. (I’d of course love to be wrong about this.)

Pushing this case too soon could be both judicially and politically risky. A loss at the Supreme Court would create binding negative precedent for ALL states, not just California. Such precedent is hard to undo. Moreover, if the case is pending during the 2012 presidential election, it could be a rallying cry for right-wingers.

On the other hand, assuming this case does reach SCOTUS, much will depend on the idiosyncratic Justice Kennedy—a swing vote who stood up for gays in both Romer v. Evans (which struck down Colorado’s amendment barring pro-gay ordinances) and Lawrence v. Texas (which reversed Bowers v. Hardwick and eliminated laws against sodomy). Romer, in particular, may be key backdrop for this case.

And even if we lose, forcing justices to put their arguments against equality in writing, for generations of legal theorists and law students to dissect, is bound to have a salutary effect long-term.

Moreover, the bi-partisan nature of this legal team, and particularly Olson’s conservative bona-fides, could be just what’s needed to nudge pro-gay conservatives out of the closet in supporting marriage equality. If—and I mean IF; a big, fat, entirely hypothetical IF—anyone could convince someone like Chief Justice Roberts to reject the constitutionality of Prop 8, Olson’s the guy to do it.

Olson’s no fool. This is a high-profile case, and that’s doubtless part of his and Boies’s motivation for taking it. They will be working “partly” pro-bono. It is unclear who’s paying for the other part, which surely won’t be cheap.

On the other hand, unlike the push for a ballot initiative to overturn Prop. 8 in 2010 or 2012, this case won’t require substantial monetary contributions from the cash-strapped grass roots. And if Olson and Boies don’t take up the case, someone else less well-positioned would likely do so.

On the other hand, Prop. 8 may not be the ideal case on which to pin this battle. Olson and Boies plan to argue on equal protection and due process grounds. But California still allows gays and lesbians to enjoy virtually all the statewide legal incidents of marriage, just without the name “marriage.” I’m not suggesting that the name is unimportant, or that “virtually” and “statewide” are the same as “all.” I am saying that it seems easier to make an equal protection case where the legal incidents, and not just the name, are substantially unequal.

On the other hand, I’m no constitutional scholar. And there’s momentum surrounding Prop. 8. And you gotta dance with them what brung you.

And it’s the momentum, more than anything, that gives me hope here. A super-prominent conservative attorney makes a strong and very public stand in favor of marriage equality, recognizing it at the key civil rights issue of our day. Even if we end up losing this particular battle, it’s hard not to grow more optimistic regarding the war.