A gay judge’s sexuality isn’t news


I write on behalf of the Bar Assn. of San Francisco, a legal professional membership organization with 8,000 members that works to elevate the standards of integrity, honor and respect in the practice of law.

I disagree with Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter’s claim that the sexual orientation of Northern District of California Chief Judge Vaughn Walker is relevant to the paper’s reporting on the federal Proposition 8 case Walker adjudicated. 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 that 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 exists for 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 amending by 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 are 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 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.

Walker has a long and illustrious record as a jurist. Nothing in his career or in his handling of the Proposition 8 case reflects that he has not fairly and objectively reviewed the facts and reached decisions based solely on the established law.

I object to The Times’ 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 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 is president of the Bar Assn. of San Francisco.