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Not Wedded to the Law

March 7, 2004

Many public officials around the country seem to have contracted the San Francisco Disease, or SFD. This is the highly contagious ailment that convinces the stricken that it’s all right to ignore laws they disagree with. Even California bureaucrats who visit the city for only an hour or two are apt to contract SFD and go around marrying gay couples or applying racial quotas, though state law explicitly forbids both. In California, voters approved propositions on these issues, and such propositions trump everything, even votes in the legislature.

But once the fever of SFD descends, officials listlessly lose interest in laws that conflict with their personal beliefs. Among the afflicted who declined to stop the illegal marriages were two judges and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who has probably suffered more cruelly from SFD than any other living Californian.

Last week’s nationwide outbreak of SFD is strikingly similar to the fevers of MRD, or Massive Resistance Disease, that afflicted George Wallace and so many other white officials who fought desegregation in the Deep South. Medical experts say SFD sufferers look very much like normal Americans, but one telltale symptom is always present: The patient vehemently denies that SFD has anything to do with MRD, since the motives behind the two forms of official lawbreaking are different, with SFD exempt from criticism because it is progressive and approved by some big-city newspapers. Once the patient starts talking that way, doctors find, rational discussion must be broken off or further delirium may occur.

Though there is no known cure for SFD, experts are striving to find ways to prevent future suffering. While combing through the many records of SFD sufferers in New York state, researchers made a promising discovery. They located a public official who apparently has a natural immunity — Ulster County District Attorney Donald Williams. Despite the current plague, Williams remained clearheaded enough to figure out that you can’t legally marry people who don’t have a marriage license.

This insight, which then dawned slowly on several other New Yorkers, led Williams to take action. He hauled into court SFD victim Jason West, mayor of the upstate town of New Paltz, and charged him with 19 criminal counts for solemnizing marriages without a license. No clerk in New Paltz supported granting a marriage license to gay couples, but West, a 26-year-old Green Party member, married the gay couples anyway and said he would keep doing it. A second New York state mayor, John Shields of Nyack, said he planned to marry gay couples too. He intends to marry a same-sex partner himself.

This week researchers are attempting to isolate the gene that gave Williams immunity to SFD, so that they might inject it into New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Their hope is that Spitzer too might take some interest in enforcing the law. In his pre-SFD days, Spitzer accumulated a great deal of moral credit for pursuing financial criminals on Wall Street. Experts, who believe Spitzer may have inadvertently visited San Francisco, perhaps without his own direct knowledge, note that he dithered all last week issuing strange and contradictory statements on all sides of the gay marriage issue. He declined to pursue an injunction, sought by the governor, to halt the marriages in New Paltz. Cutting through this fog, the New York Daily News said editorially, “He should remember that public officials don’t get to pick which laws they will respect or enforce.” This is a revolutionary thought in the Big Apple, where the speaker of the city council has been demanding that the mayor join the lawbreaking by issuing marriage licenses to gays.

Though unwilling to act, Spitzer was willing to share his feelings on the issue (he favors gay marriage). Replacing action with heartfelt feelings is an established secondary characteristic of the disease. For instance, a policeman who refuses to give anyone a ticket for speeding, but who honestly shares his view that the 55-mph speed limit is much too low, could be said to display the Spitzer strain of SFD.

Some researchers are starting to wonder whether the Massachusetts Judicial Court, which ruled 4-3 that the state must begin issuing marriage licenses to gays, may have been suffering from a variant of SFD itself. The three dissenters essentially accused the victorious four of making up the ruling with no warrant at all in the law. This does not establish the four as SFD victims, but overriding law and tradition in favor of personal feelings is what SFD is all about. Maybe the four should be tested.

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