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California Courts Lead the Nation 

May 22, 2023

California’s state Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have a long history of being first-in-the-nation to reach decisions on landmark legal issues that the US Supreme Court would later vindicate.

These two courts have decided cases on everything from racism to anti-LGBTQ discrimination to workers’ rights, and environmental justice. California voters have a direct role in ensuring that our courts reflect our communities and stay at the forefront of equality and liberty.

In their 1948 decision in Perez v. Sharp, the California Supreme Court became the first statewide court to strike down bans on interracial marriage.The logic in their decision would later appear in the US Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia in 1967. The US Supreme Court had previously upheld anti-miscegenation laws in 1883 in Pace v. Alabama.

More recently in 2014, in the SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Labs case, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the first court to hold that potential jurors can’t be removed based on their sexual orientation. (A provision in the Equality Act introduced in the U.S. Congress most recently in 2021 would ultimately make this the law across the country.)  

In that same case, the Ninth Circuit held that, under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, laws that group people on the basis of sexual orientation should be subjected to a heightened form of judicial scrutiny. It meant that laws targeting LGBTQ people are to be seen as suspicious by courts and only upheld when there’s a good reason for it, with important implications for state bans on same-sex marriage among many other rights states try to take away from LGBTQ people. The California Supreme Court had already reached that decision for state laws in In Re Marriage Cases in 2008 when they struck down Proposition 8, that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman, as unconstitutional. 

The Ninth Circuit in 2014 also became the first appeals court to allow states to ban so-called LGBTQ “conversion therapy.” Plaintiffs who wanted to practice “conversion therapy” brought a challenge to California’s ban and the court upheld the ban. The cases, Pickup v. Brown and Welch v. Brown, led to other decisions upholding similar laws in states, cities, and municipalities. 

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the California Supreme Court have undoubtedly led the nation in legal thought, especially in areas upholding equality. Some of the most renowned judges are from these courts, including the late Judge Stephen Reinhardt, often considered to be the most liberal judge in the federal appeals courts until his death. This influential history has led to calls from conservative senators to split up the Ninth Circuit and limit that court’s and California’s impact on the judiciary across the nation. 

Each of the seven-member California Supreme Court justices is appointed by the Governor and then re-elected every 12 years by California voters. Under Governor Newsom, the Court is getting more diverse. Each of the 29-member Ninth Circuit justices are appointed by the President and serve lifetime appointments. After President Trump changed the makeup of the court to be less liberal by appointing a record 10 new judges, President Biden is getting more and more opportunities to nominate diverse judges. Just a few months ago, Judge Paul Watford announced his resignation allowing Biden another chance at an appointment in a court that is increasingly more right-leaning after Donald Trump’s presidency. 

For California and the Ninth Circuit to continue to be at the forefront of equality and liberty, we have to remain vigilant, elect leaders who are committed to appointing diverse and thoughtful judges to safeguard our rights, and re-elect the judges who champion our values.