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A Sacramento appeal court has agreed to consider a constitutional challenge to California’s new domestic partnership law, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. But in accepting a writ contesting a Sept. 8 decision by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster, the 3rd District Court of Appeal asked only for expedited briefing. It did not issue a stay, as opponents had asked. Both sides in the contentious debate over domestic partnership — which many see as a giant step toward full marriage rights for gay couples — hailed the brief order as a victory. The law, AB 205, grants community property, parenting and other rights to domestic partners in California. “We are grateful that the law will go fully into effect on Jan. 1, 2005, and tens of thousands of California families will begin to enjoy the protections provided by AB 205,” said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, which supports same-sex marriage, in a written statement. But conservative opponents had a different interpretation of the court action. They cheered what they said was the 3rd District’s conclusion that the domestic partners law “appears to violate” Proposition 22, a voter-approved initiative that limits marriage in California to a man and a woman. “It’s a very positive step forward and in no way can it be interpreted as a victory for the other side,” said Robert Tyler, an attorney for Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based religious group that opposes expanding civil rights for gays. ADF had represented state Sen. William “Pete” Knight, a primary sponsor of Prop 22, and has maintained the litigation following Knight’s death earlier this year. The challenge to the new domestic partnership statute landed in McMaster’s Sacramento courtroom, and the judge eventually threw it out on summary judgment. McMaster’s ruling so angered an anti-gay rights group that it launched a recall to try to pull him from the bench. Proponents need 44,284 signatures to get the recall on the Sacramento County ballot. A group to fight the recall has apparently been formed in response. The secretary of state’s Web site lists a “Committee for Judicial Independence to Retain Judge McMaster,” but provides no details on the group’s fund raising. McMaster, appointed by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999, did not return a phone call seeking comment. ADF has not taken a position on the recall. As for the 3rd District’s order Tuesday, appellate specialists not connected with the case weren’t sure exactly what to make of it. At first glance, it seems a little strange that the appeal court would grant an alternative writ without staying the law. But Jay-Allen Eisen, an appellate expert with his own firm in Sacramento, suggested that there aren’t any plaintiffs who would be actually injured by domestic partners immediately getting benefits, so there’s no harm in allowing the law to go into effect. It’s also possible that the court knows it will get the matter on appeal at some point. And because it involves politicians and a high-profile social issue, the justices might want to get to it as quickly as possible, Eisen said. “I tend to think it’s that public interest that’s doing it,” Eisen said. G. Scott Emblidge, a partner at Moscone, Emblidge & Quadra, which represents Secretary of State Kevin Shelley in the case, agreed with Eisen’s speculation. “The case is going to be in the court of appeal one way or the other,” Emblidge said. “I don’t read anything into it in the fact that they set a briefing schedule.” Third District justices asked for briefs from both sides by Jan. 20. The case is Knight v. Superior Court of Sacramento County, C048378.

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