Topic: Government & Politics

Some Hero
(8/15/2004)

The arrogant and illegal actions of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in choosing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples_in clear violation of state law_ has now had its predictable result: the voiding of over 4,000 marriages entered into by trusting gay men and women who relied on the mayor's word and judgment.

Bad idea. As the Ethics Scoreboard pointed out at the time, for an elected official to unilaterally ignore the law because he doesn't like it or feels it's unconstitutional is the height of unethical professional conduct. Newsom violated his oath of office and the specific duties of his job, yet he was hailed as a hero by gay rights activists and even many plain middle-of-the-road liberals, who like so many activists everywhere of all sexual persuasions are all too willing to tolerate stomping on the rules when the results are personally pleasing.

But to make matters worse, Newsom's stunt amounted to nothing more than a cruel hoax, though a particularly transparent one. Thousands of hopeful and sincere gay couples made a pilgrimage to the City by the Bay, recited marriage vows amid tears, flowers and well-wishers, all on Newsom's representation that he could deliver on a marriage license. His claim was irresponsible and contrary to the law; meanwhile, his city's coffers pocketed the license fees. And sure enough, the California Supreme Court declared that it was all a waste of time. So how do you like your champion now, ex-newlyweds?

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the first same-sex couple to receive one of Newsom's bogus marriage licenses. "Del is 83 years old and I am 79," Lyon said. "After being together for more than 50 years, it is a terrible blow to have the rights and protections of marriage taken away from us. At our age, we do not have the luxury of time." The couple's disappointment is typical. Supporters of Newsome say his actions were justified by their "symbolic value," but that is a difficult argument to make. Could it possibly be right for Newsom to use 4,000 trusting gay couples as props for his political grandstanding? Undoubtedly some of the more savvy of the 4000 got a San Francisco marriage to dramatize the plight of gay couples knowing full well that the marriages were unlikely to hold up in court. All of the 4,000 should have been apprised of that fact. Newsom either didn't know, making him reckless, or didn't care, making him callous.

The precedent Newsom was attempting to set couldn't be more dangerous: local officials refusing to enforce laws that they happen to feel are unjust or unwise is a recipe for anarchy. Nothing in Newsom's method precludes other mayors from violating gun controls (why, a violation of the Second Amendment!), anti-discrimination laws (How dare the government over-ride the "natural order" of things?), anti-drug laws or any other provisions they can muster an argument against.

The Mayor wasn't alone in his betrayal of trust and principle. Governor Schwarzenegger, his renegade Attorney General and various judges combined wariness, bias and ineptitude to refrain from taking timely action that might have spared the 4000 couples wasted time and dashed hopes. All in all, the San Francisco rebellion was an abject lesson in bad ethics. Before you violate the rules, make sure you calculate the damage and conclude with some certainty that it will be justified by the results. Then make sure that you take steps minimize the damage as much as possible.

Mayor Newsome didn't do any of this. He ended up hurting most the people he claimed to be helping. Some hero.

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