HBO’s documentary on the legal fight to overturn California’s Proposition 8, “The Case Against 8,” is undeniably a moving piece of TV. It will surely, among those who see it, reinforce their commitment to marriage equality.
But when you step back, it suffers from the same faults as journalist Jo Becker’s book on the case, Forcing the Spring—it’s as if the fight for gay marriage has no previous history, and the momentous fight in the case against Prop. 8, Hollingsworth v. Perry, was a world-changing victory won through the heroic efforts of three men, LGBT activist leader Chad Griffin (now president of the Human Rights Campaign) and superstar lawyers Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies.
What’s most egregious, however, is that short shrift is given to the case that actually is leading to national marriage equality, United States vs. Windsor, decided by the Supreme Court on the same day. In only the briefest of mentions in the HBO documentary do we hear about this case, and its plaintiff Edith Windsor and her lawyer, Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan, go unheralded.
Hollingsworth may have sought to establish a nationwide right to same-sex marriage, but had the far more limited outcome of restoring marriage equality in California, and it did so on the exceedingly narrow grounds that the opponents to the lower court ruling against Prop. 8 lacked standing to bring the appeal (since the current governor, Jerry Brown, declined to do so). As Hank Stuever writes in his Washington Post review, the HBO documentary is “fascinating for all the wrong reasons.”
James Kirchick suggests in his Wall Street Journal review of Becker’s book (and a similarly themed book by Olson and Boies), Hollingsworth will be just a footnote in the history of marriage equality; Windsor is the decision that’s changing everything. Writes Kirchick:
Not only did the victory [in Windsor] grant federal recognition to every gay marriage registered in a state that recognizes such unions, but the decision has since been cited by multiple state courts in striking same-sex marriage bans from the books. Hollingsworth reversed Proposition 8—no small feat considering that California is the country’s most populous state but hardly the sort of victory that merits the mantle of “revolution”…
A similar point is also driven home by Alyssa Rosenberg in her Washington Post commentary.
Clearly, it’s Windsor that courts across the country are relying on as they grant gay and lesbian couples the freedom to marry, including the 10th Circuit’s historic ruling. Thank you, Edie Windsor and Robbie Kaplan. Too bad you lack the PR machinery of Griffin, Olson and Boies.
More. The Cato Institute’s David Boaz reminded us back in 2010, when district court judge Vaughn Walker struck down Prop. 8 (the ruling eventually allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court), that when Walker was nominated by Ronald Reagan to the federal bench:
…such groups as the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force worked to block the nomination.
In other words, this “liberal San Francisco judge” was recommended by Ed Meese, appointed by Ronald Reagan, and opposed by Alan Cranston, Nancy Pelosi, Edward Kennedy, and the leading gay activist groups. It’s a good thing for advocates of marriage equality that those forces were only able to block Walker twice.
In the HBO documentary, Griffin jokes that if the chairman of the Cato Institute supports marriage equality, maybe he should rethink his position, demonstrating a lack of awareness about libertarians versus conservatives. (Cato’s chairman Robert A. Levy discusses Griffin’s remarks here.)
Furthermore. More on libertarians and gay marriage from Cato’s David Boaz, via (and with commentary from) Richard J. Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) of D.C.
And Dale Carpenter adds: “Rarely have so few overlooked so many to claim so much based on so little.“