Thursday, March 16, 2006

Judges Secretly Promise to Keep Up Marriage Ban

(Link) Minnesota's Senate Majority Leader says that state's Supreme Court judges told him on tape they'd retain the same-sex marriage ban if it came up for a vote. Oops! Talking about what they "might" do in a prospective case is illegal. Backpeddling and CYA-ing ensues!

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:

By Patricia Lopez
Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune

As legislators wrestle with the explosive issue of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson has been caught on a recording telling pastors that there was little need for such a ban because he had been assured by state Supreme Court justices that they would not overturn Minnesota law and allow such unions.

Taped without his knowledge at a meeting of clergy members in New London in January, Johnson, DFL-Willmar, can be heard saying that "members of the Supreme Court, I know all of them. I have had a number of visits with them about our law. All of them, every one of them, including the lady who just stepped down, Kathleen Blatz, was my seatmate for four years. She was the chief justice. You know what her response was? 'Dean, we all stand for election too, every six years.' She said 'We're not going to touch it.' That's what she said to me." He also said that he had talked with two of the three justices named Anderson and that they had told him, "Dean, we're not going to do it."

Such a promise could weaken arguments made by proponents of the amendment that, without a constitutional ban, courts might legalize same-sex marriage.

But such assurances also would violate judicial rules.

Justices are prohibited from discussing cases that could come before the court, and doing so could subject them to disciplinary action or result in their being disqualified from the case, according to judicial standards adopted earlier this year.

Supreme Court spokesman John Kostouros said in a statement Wednesday that "any suggestion that a justice made a commitment to vote a certain way on a case or issue if it came before them would be a serious ethical breach. ... No such promise or commitment was made."

Blatz also issued a statement of denial. "It would have been highly unethical for me as the chief justice to ... give assurances to anyone on how the court was likely to decide an issue that might come before it. It just never happened."

Remarks 'loosely worded'

Johnson, who has been the point person in the Senate DFL efforts to keep the amendment from coming to a floor vote, could not be reached for comment. He was en route Wednesday to Camp Shelby, Miss., where Minnesota National Guard members are readying for a mass deployment to Iraq.

But in a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Johnson said that "first and foremost, I have at no time ever received any promises or commitments regarding any potential judicial cases from any member of the state Supreme Court."

Johnson, who is also a minister, said in his statement that "I sincerely apologize if any damage has been done to the integrity of the court resulting from my loosely worded comments to fellow clergy."

The recording was made public Wednesday by Minnesota for Marriage, an advocacy group calling for a constitutional ban against same-sex unions, and comes just as proponents in the Senate prepare for an attempt to force a floor vote, possibly today.

Same-sex marriages are already illegal in Minnesota, but supporters of the constitutional amendment have argued that courts here could go the route of Massachusetts courts and strike down the state law as unconstitutional, paving the way for such unions here.

Jeff Davis, of Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage, called for Johnson's resignation at a news conference on Wednesday, saying Johnson had "poisoned the debate on this issue," and "undermined the integrity of the Minnesota Supreme Court." Davis said he will launch a petition drive to remove Johnson from office.

Republican Party officials took a more tempered tone, but said Johnson needs to "come clean" on apparently contradictory statements.

"We'd really just like Dean Johnson to clear the air," said Mark Drake, communications director for the state Republican Party. "This apparently isn't the first time he's said he talked to justices about this. It's pretty confusing. Did he misspeak twice? This is very troubling."

Similar assurance

Drake was referring to an article that appeared in the March/April edition of the Pro-Family News, a publication of the Minnesota Family Council, that said Johnson spoke to a group at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and had been assured by justices that they would not take up the case.

Eva Young, an activist who attended the December meeting at Bethlehem, said Johnson did say that Blatz had told him they would not hear the case, but "I didn't think about it at the time. Now that I think of it, that was a weird thing to say. On the other hand, people do have informal conversations. I think that's all this was.

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, pointed out that because of a court case brought in 2002 by Republicans, judicial candidates can comment on legal issues, including those that might come before them.

"Under the new rules for judges that the Republican Party won, judges can comment on cases, even before they come up," he said. "Ironically, because of this new standard, there appears to be no infraction by anyone."

'Open and honest debate'

But that looser standard applies only to active candidates, and does not permit pledges to rule a certain way on a specific case. The state Supreme Court earlier this year imposed on itself a restriction that prohibits justices from discussing current or potential cases. If they spoke about legal issues that could come before the court, even as candidates, they could be disqualified from hearing such cases.

Chuck Darrell, communications director for Minnesota for Marriage, said Johnson's remarks "compromised the dialogue, the openness about the marriage amendment. What he needs to do to rectify that is to simply allow the marriage amendment to come to the Senate floor for an open and honest debate."

Darrell would not comment on the possible role of the justices, saying only that "the justices don't have anything to do with getting the amendment to the floor."