San Francisco Superior Court is known for being liberal. It was the first to prohibit judges from associating with the Boy Scouts of America, which characterized gays as “unclean” and “not morally straight.” It’s called the “Lavender Bench,” because at least 10 of its 50 judges are openly gay.
But Judge Richard A. Kramer, whose ruling this week offered hope to gays and lesbians — along with those who think they should have a right to marry — isn’t one of those 10. He is a straight, white, Irish Catholic, who happens to be a Republican appointed by Governor Pete Wilson in 1996.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, and raised in the Los Angeles area, Kramer is the only son of a bookkeeper father and a homemaker mother. He graduated from USC in 1969 and stayed on for law school, embarking on a lengthy career in commercial litigation before rising to the bench. He has one daughter and a working wife, according to a profile in the Daily Journal, and enjoys skiing, tennis, bike riding and family getaways in Lake Tahoe. After receiving death threats in a gang case he once tried, he wore a bulletproof vest and carried a weapon to court. When first assigned to criminal cases, he explored San Francisco’s Tenderloin District to learn more about the people he would be seeing in his courtroom. Prosecutors, defenders, plaintiffs’ lawyers and their adversaries have praised him for being intelligent and fair-minded.
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Opponents of gay marriage excoriated Kramer for his ruling on Monday that struck down a state law reserving holy matrimony for straight people. “This is a crazy ruling by an arrogant San Francisco judge who apparently hates marriage and the voters. Kramer has trashed the people’s vote to keep marriage for a man and a woman and violated his oath to uphold the law instead of making new laws out of his own head. This is the worst kind of judge,” railed Randy Thomasson, executive director of Campaign for California Families, a party to the lawsuit. “This is just another attempt by activist judges to circumvent the clear intent of the Constitution,” cried state Senator Bill Morrow, a Republican from Oceanside. “It’s an attack on families and traditional American values.”
Kramer’s ruling came in the six consolidated cases that arose after Mayor Gavin Newsom signed a city ordinance permitting gay marriage last year. The state Supreme Court struck down the ordinance, prompting the National Center for Lesbian Rights, along with Lambda Legal and the ACLU, to file a legal challenge to Proposition 22, a voter initiative that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and several other parties also filed legal challenges to the voter-approved law, which now is headed for the appeals court. Granting the benefits of marriage under the state’s domestic-partner laws while denying gay couples the right to marry “smacks of a concept long rejected by the courts: separate but equal,” Kramer wrote in his opinion.
Judges in Hawaii, Alaska, Vermont, Oregon, Washington, New York and Massachusetts have made similar rulings. Appeals courts in Kentucky; Minnesota; Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; Arizona and Indiana have upheld anti-gay-marriage statutes. Voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments in 2004 that prohibit gays from marrying. With opponents of gay marriage vowing to fight for a U.S. constitutional amendment, Kramer’s ruling did not surprise his colleagues. “Richard is a devoted husband and father and a person of great integrity,” said former presiding Judge Donna Hitchens, who along with her domestic partner, Judge Nancy Davis, is a party to a lawsuit in which they oppose attempts to thwart expansion of benefits for gays and lesbians under the state’s domestic-partner laws. “He’s an ethical judge, so there’s no use trying to label him politically.”
Even some of those dismayed by the ruling showed regard for Kramer. Said Robert Tyler, the attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund that argued in favor of Prop. 22, “I like Judge Kramer and I respect him, although I completely disagree with him. No judge has the right to redefine the Constitution to create a right of same-sex marriage, or to redefine marriage as we’ve known it for the millennia.” Tyler is still stewing over the Lavender Bench’s refusal to hear his challenge to S.F.’s gay-marriage ordinance in 2004. “We had to go to the state Supreme Court to get the mayor to follow the law,” he said. “I suspect Judge Kramer would have ruled the same way they did.” Kramer did not return calls for comment.
Having retired many of its old-fashioned Republican judges long ago, the San Francisco bench these days is known for fiercely protecting the rights of criminal defendants, granting many requests for probation and allowing defense attorneys to ask for many continuances. In 2004, when Thomasson went to court to stop the city clerk from issuing marriage licenses, he chided the court for taking sides in favor of gay marriage. He filed a challenge to Judge James Warren, although he declined to state his reasons. But Warren was replaced by Judge Kevin McCarthy, who is openly gay. Then, last summer, as Kramer took over the separate case challenging Prop. 22, Thomasson tried to move the lawsuit out of San Francisco, citing judges Hitchens and Davis and their effort to protect domestic partner benefits.
However, the straight Republican family man denied the request.