Thoughts on the Road From Walker to Reinhardt to Kennedy

Reading the blog and media reaction to Judge Reinhardt’s opinion for the Ninth Circuit in Perry v. Brown, it’s interesting how much it resembles the reaction to Judge Walker’s opinion at the District Court level. Most agree that both opinions were written solely for an audience of one, Justice Kennedy. In both cases, a lot of the reactions focus on whether the opinions successfully figured out a clever way to get Kennedy’s vote.

After Judge Walker’s opinion, for example, a lot of commenters thought Walker was particularly clever for announcing rather aggressive findings of fact that seemed to bleed over into the legal issues; the thought was that Walker could force the higher courts to see things his way because facts ordinarily are reviewed under the “clearly erroneous” standard instead of a de novo standard. After Reinhardt’s opinion, a lot of commenters have suggested that Reinhardt was particularly clever because he framed the issue narrowly under Romer, avoiding the broader questions of gay marriage.

I have no idea what the Supreme Court might do in the Perry case. But my own sense is that Judges Walker and Reinhardt are not quite as clever as some people seem to think. Or, at the very least, the reasoning of their opinions don’t really matter very much. First, I think it’s unlikely that the particular reasoning of either opinion will have a substantial influence on the Justices. The issues in Perry are extremely important, and they’re the kind of issues that force the Justices to fall back on first principles. The details of how the lower courts reached the results they reached matter a lot less in that kind of case than in an ordinary case. Consider how Judge Reinhardt dealt with Judge Walker’s extensive factual findings: He basically ignored them.

Second, to the extent the reasoning of the lower court decisions matter — which, as I said, I tend to doubt — the fact that both opinions are widely understood as advocacy briefs to Justice Kennedy from judges who are same-sex marriage supporters probably hurts the same-sex marriage cause more than helps it. The Justices aren’t dumb: They get it. And when they get the sense that the lower courts were crafting their opinions to try to maneuver a single Justice into a desired result in such a high profile case, that kind of heavy handedness runs a risk of backfiring. It creates a sort of patina of unreliability. I think a more clever strategy would have been to be more subtle: Create more of a sense of the opinions as routine legal opinions and less as advocacy briefs. And if you’re Reinhardt, make the opinion “per curiam” so it doesn’t come to the Court with your name on it.