The new book of judges and mayors

Posted: Feb 19, 2004 12:00 AM

"In those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes."

That's how the Old Testament book of Judges ends. These days, it seems as if there is no settled law in America: Judges and mayors do what is right in their own eyes. A Massachusetts chief justice orders her legislature to create gay marriage. A San Francisco mayor breaks state law by ordering that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples.

Who are these audacious magistrates? Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court head Margaret Marshall, wife of New York Times columnist emeritus (and evangelical-despising) Anthony Lewis, gained her position through heavy backing by the Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times. Brand new San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as a man "whose finely chiseled face, impeccably gelled coiffure and European designer suits grant him the aura of a Calvin Klein model," also won with major press support.

Both beneficiaries of media praise acted in surprising ways once they gained their dream jobs. Before Marshall's appointment, the Globe called her "a moderate" and cited her opposition to a Boston ordinance that created domestic partners: Cities, she wrote, must not take the law into their own hands, but should press the legislature to act. Once in power, though, she did what was right in her own eyes and put together a 4-to-3 court majority for same-sex marriage.

Until Valentine's Day weekend, Newsom was best known as a glamorous Democrat who wanted homeless individuals to receive fewer direct handouts but more government programs. Two months ago, he barely defeated a Green Party mayoral candidate who had broad gay support. Once in power, though, he did what was right (or politically shrewd) in his own eyes, producing thousands of marriage licenses and perhaps millions of future Gavin devotees, if the 36-year-old's aspirations for higher office turn him toward statewide or national campaigns.

Newsom ?s coup will force California judges -- and perhaps eventually U.S. Supreme Court justices -- to decide whether to stick with the law, even when real-life gay couples given favorable press publicity plead to be allowed to stay "married." The mayor won a big victory on Tuesday when a San Francisco superior court judge refused to order an immediate stop to the parade, which may now continue until March 29.

Why are judges so pliable? Why has California's action hero governor become a portrait of inaction? So what if California is one of 40 states having laws defining marriage as being between a man and a woman? In our new Book of Judges and Mayors, each does what is right in his own eyes, particularly if big media eyes declare perpetrators to be heroes rather than violators of their oaths of office.

Campaign for California Families director Randy Thomasson protested vociferously: "No one made the mayor of San Francisco king; he can't play God. He cannot trash the vote of the people." But Thomasson is assuming that laws are to be followed. Why should they be, when we have added to the Bill of Rights the right of everyone to do what is right in his own eyes? Just because Californians in 2000 approved by a 2-to-1 margin Proposition 22, which limits marriage to one man and one woman, should our modern Abimelechs obey?

Liberals who praise Newsom but condemned Alabama's Judge Roy Moore should think again. I've been critical of both men, but Moore has the stronger defense: He was opposing the over-reaching of a few federal judges, but Newsom is fighting the clearly expressed wishes of the voters of California. Furthermore, Moore was trying to uphold the Bible, while Newsom is blessing what the Bible clearly forbids.

But the proper means of action for all, as long as we are allowed to vote and freely express our views, is through the democratic process. Happily, Judge Moore is now working within that process by supporting legislation that would limit the ability of federal judges to decree what is right in their own eyes. If we hinder the rule of law instead of straightening it out, we are slouching toward anarchy -- and anarchy creates such a mess that dictatorship often follows.