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Perry v. Schwarzenegger: Basics You Should Know

[Cross-posted at the Gay Couples Law Blog, which discusses same sex family law, estate planning, and taxes.]

With all the attention yesterday about how Perry v. Schwarzenegger will be the first non-criminal federal trial publicly broadcasted (and on YouTube), it's smart to take some time to go over some basics.

Who's Challenging the Ban?

Perry: Perry is the last name of Kristin Perry, who was denied a marriage license with her partner Sandra Steir. The two join Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, who were also denied a license. The court uses the name “Perry” to refer to all four of them. They're challenging Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage, in federal court because they say it violates the U.S. Constitution.

Famous Lawyers: Representing the people challenging the gay marriage ban are two famous lawyers, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson and trial lawyer David Boies. You may have heard of them–they represented President Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 Supreme Court case that ended up deciding the presidential election.

Who's Defending the Ban?

Schwarzenegger: Although the case name says it's versus Governor Schwarzenegger, the governor isn't actually defending Proposition 8. He said he's neutral. Moreover, the California attorney general agreed that the law should be struck down.

Instead, a bunch of religious and conservative groups have gotten together to defend the ban in the governor's place. The main lawyer for this side is Charles Cooper.

What's a Bench Trial?

A bench trial is mostly just like a jury trial, except that it's in front of a judge. On one hand, this means that the trial might seem more boring, because the lawyers won't have to ham it up for a jury. On the other hand, the lawyers do know that the trial will be made public, so maybe they'll try to make it interesting. The bench trial starts this Monday, January 11th.

What Is Each Side Trying to Prove?

In general, the Constitution says that states can't make discriminatory laws unless there's a good enough reason. So Perry's lawyers will try to prove that there isn't a good enough reason for the marriage discrimination, while the lawyers on the other side will try to show why there is.

That's why they're having the bench trial. The trial will first determine what the effects of gay marriage are, such as the effects on children of gay parents and the effects of gay marriage on heterosexual marriages in general. If it finds that gay marriage has negative social effects, the court may decide that the state trying to prevent those effects by banning it is a good enough reason.

What's at Stake?

Because the case is in federal court and is about whether a state gay marriage ban violates the U.S. Constitution, the case could eventually be appealed the the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court hears the case, then its decision could affect all state marriage bans, not just California's.

For more information, keep up with the court's special website for the case.

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Gideon Alper

Gideon Alper