The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday said that the federal trial over California’s same-sex marriage ban would not be aired outside of the San Francisco courthouse.
In a 5-4 split along the court’s conservative-liberal lines, the court said that while it was not weighing in on the larger issue of whether such trials should be broadcast, "[w]e instead determine that the broadcast in this case should be stayed because it appears the courts below did not follow the appropriate procedures set forth in federal law before changing their rules to allow such broadcasting." The opinion was not signed by any one judge.
The debate over whether the trial should be broadcast became a power struggle between judicial bodies after San Francisco federal judge Vaughn Walker cited a recent decision made by the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit that trial courts within its jurisdiction could begin experimenting with recording civil trials.
Walker decided last week that cameras would be allowed in the courtroom during the first legal challenge to a controversial California ballot proposition that banned same-sex marriage over objections that taping the testimony of Prop. 8 proponents would subject them to harassment. Attorneys arguing on behalf of the ballot proposition’s constitutionality appealed to the Supreme Court and the court issued a temporary stay.
Nearly an hour after the stay expired at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion that the stay will remain in effect until the ballot proposition’s attorneys present their appeal. The written opinion avoided the question of whether cameras have a place in the courtroom and focused on whether Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals (9th Cir.) circumvented policy of the Judicial Conference of the United States by allowing the broadcast to go forward.
"[O]ur review is confined to a narrow legal issue: whether the District Court’s amendment of its local rules to broadcast this trial complied with federal law. We conclude that it likely did not," the opinion read.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer — joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — said the decision "micromanaged" the administration of the district courts and that it was inappropriate to intervene.
"The majority’s action today is unusual," Breyer wrote. "It grants a stay in order to consider a mandamus petition, with a view to intervening in a matter of local court administration that it would not (and should not) consider. It cites no precedent for doing so. It identifies no real harm, let alone ‘irreparable harm,’ to justify its issuance of this stay. And the public interest weighs in favor of providing access to the courts … [a]nd so I believe this Court should adhere to its institutional competence, its historical practice, and its governing precedent — all of which counsel strongly against the issuance of this stay."
The issue, which was before the high court on an expedited schedule for a stay, now will proceed through the normal process of petitioning for review, which the court does not have to accept.