Court Won't Release CA Gay Marriage Trial Videos


Salon Staff
February 2, 2012 11:45PM (UTC)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal appeals court refused Thursday to unseal video recordings of a landmark trial on the constitutionality of California's same-sex marriage ban.

Siding with the ban's supporters, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled the public doesn't have the right to see the footage.

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The 2010 trial lasted 13 days and was the first in a federal court to examine if prohibiting gay couples from marrying violates their constitutional rights.

It was open to the public and received widespread media coverage, so the recordings would not have revealed any new evidence or testimony.

In deciding to keep the videos under seal, a three-judge 9th Circuit panel cited a promise by the trial judge that the footage would not be seen outside his courtroom.

Former U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker had staff members make the recordings with the caveat that the footage would be used only by him to help him reach a verdict.

Walker, who has since retired and revealed he is in a long-term relationship with another man, originally wanted to broadcast the trial in other federal courthouses and on YouTube.

The U.S. Supreme Court forbade him from moving forward with that plan after the ban's sponsors argued that distributing trial footage could subject their witnesses to harassment. At the time, the 9th Circuit did not allow the federal courts within its jurisdiction to televise trials. The appeals court since has adopted rules that would permit trials to be broadcast under limited conditions.

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A coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, and lawyers for the two couples who successfully sued to overturn Proposition 8 in Walker's court have petitioned to have the Proposition 8 trial recordings made public on First Amendment grounds, maintaining the ban's backers have not proven their witnesses would be harmed if people got to see what they said under oath.

Walker's successor as the chief U.S. district judge in Northern California, James Ware, agreed in September and planned to unseal the videos. In its Thursday ruling, the three-judge 9th Circuit panel unanimously agreed that Ware had erred and ordered the recordings kept under seal.

"The integrity of our judicial system depends in no small part on the ability of litigants and members of the public to rely on a judge's word. The record compels the finding that the trial judge's representations to the parties were solemn commitments," the appeals court said.

Gay rights advocates have indicated they want to use the recordings to try to puncture political arguments used by opponents of same-sex marriage.

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The 9th Circuit has said it wanted to resolve the public release of the trial videos before it addresses the more substantive issue of whether Walker correctly struck down Proposition 8 on federal constitutional grounds. The appeals court panel heard arguments about that a year ago, but does not face a deadline for making a decision.


Salon Staff

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