After failing to get elected California attorney general last year, John Eastman, a conservative law professor, has emerged as a different sort of general, one taking a lead in the cultural war over marriage.
Eastman, 51, has been appointed chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, the main organization advocating at the ballot box and in courts for traditional marriage, and against any effort to legalize same-sex marriage.
Eastman, who teaches at Chapman University School of Law in Orange County, regularly files arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court and appellate courts on the hot-button social issues of the day.
His selection underscores that the issue of same-sex marriage is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. When it finally arrives there, he almost surely will have filed one of the briefs.
But Eastman and his allies have opened a new front in the war over values, attacking laws that require donors to identify themselves when they give money to marriage campaigns, and, by extension, any other contested ballot measure.
The organization's Washington law firm sent a 14-page letter to Minnesota challenging its disclosure requirements ahead of a November 2012 fight over a ballot measure to define marriage as being between a man and woman, similar to California's Proposition 8 in 2008.
A suit attacking California's disclosure law already is pending in federal court in Sacramento, brought after Yes-on-8 donors complained of harassment and threats.
Eastman likened the harassment of donors to the marriage campaigns to individuals who risked assaults and even lynching by donating to the NAACP in past generations.
"People ought not to put their livelihood at risk for speaking their conscience," Eastman told me in an interview. "I expect that the National Organization for Marriage will continue to pay close attention to the legal developments of donors on the right, and their right to participate without being threatened."
It's a slick pivot, this effort to seize the issue of harassment.
Gays have been the target of taunts and brutality throughout history, and there are far too many instances of gay teenagers who commit suicide because of bullying, kids such as Jamey Rodemeyer. The 14-year-old high school freshman from suburban Buffalo, N.Y., killed himself last month, after he had made a video in the "It Gets Better" campaign urging other gay teens to persevere.
"Hold your head up and you'll go far," he said sadly, in a YouTube posting a few months before he died.
Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign, which fought Proposition 8, marvels at the topsy-turvy nature of the harassment argument. No Yes-on-8 donor ever faced the sort of humiliation endured by young homosexuals.
"Somehow, they've turned themselves into victims. It is alchemy," Jacobs said.
For Eastman, the issue is one of free speech, and he has a notable ally – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom Eastman worked as a law clerk in 1996 and 1997.
Thomas cited anecdotes about Proposition 8 in a separate opinion he wrote in the landmark Citizens United decision last year in which the court allowed corporations to give unlimited sums of money to independent campaigns.
"The success of such intimidation tactics has apparently spawned a cottage industry that uses forcibly disclosed donor information to pre-empt citizens' exercise of their First Amendment rights," Thomas wrote, adding that "instances of retaliation sufficiently demonstrate why this court should invalidate mandatory disclosure and reporting requirements."
Thomas was the only justice who reached that conclusion. But the issue isn't going away. The National Organization for Marriage is pushing a pledge, signed by leading Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
In addition to promising to push for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and woman, the candidates pledge to "establish a presidential commission on religious liberty to investigate and document reports of Americans who have been harassed or threatened for exercising civil rights to organize, to speak, to donate or to vote for marriage, and to propose new protections if needed."
Interesting concept. Perhaps Perry and Romney would create a similar commission to look into suicide by gay teenagers.
In the Republican primary for attorney general last year, Eastman captured a third of the vote and placed second to Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who narrowly lost to Democrat Kamala Harris.
Eastman downplayed the importance to him of the issue of same-sex marriage during the campaign, though he did criticize then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-Attorney General Jerry Brown for refusing to defend Proposition 8 in court.
He since has filed written arguments in the case pending before the California Supreme Court, arguing that Proposition 8's backers have standing to defend the measure in appellate courts.
"When important constitutional principles are on the line, people frequently turn to John Eastman to advocate a conservative, pro-family position," National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said last month, announcing Eastman's appointment.
Eastman is much smarter than this lowly newspaper columnist. He has a doctorate from Claremont and a University of Chicago law degree. But I don't buy his campaign disclosure argument.
Public discourse should be civil. But people get angry about marriage. That's also why consultants manipulate the issue to drive up voter turnout.
There were instances of harassment of Yes-on-8 donors. But my guess is that far more people have been vilified and killed because they are gay than because they gave $100 or even $1 million to a campaign.
Here's an idea: If a guy threatens you because you give a donation, call the cops. But don't abolish the fundamental right to know who buys and sells initiatives.
The Yes-on-8 campaign raised $40 million. The No-on-8 campaign raised $43 million. Sure, donors ought to be able to give money without being harassed. But the rest of us have a right to know who is trying to buy our votes.
"I expect that (we) will continue to pay close attention to the legal developments of donors on the right, and their right to participate without being threatened." – JOHN EASTMAN, new chairman of the National Organization for Marriage