Friday, January 25, 2013

The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage: Will the Court "Split the Baby"?

The issue of same-sex marriage will arrive at the United States Supreme Court this spring in a pair high profile cases.

The first, Hollingsworth v. Perry, considers the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative which amended California's constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, effectively over-ruling a state Supreme Court decision which held that California's constitution required allowing same-sex couple to marry along with opposite-sex couples. On Tuesday, a group of Californians who support Proposition 8 filed their brief on the merits, asking the Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals's decision invalidating the voter-approved measure. The case will be argued on March 23.

The second, United States v. Windsor, deals with the constitutionality of the part the federal Defense of Marriage Act, enacted in 1996, that defines marriage in federal law as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." Among other things, the law prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages that are valid under state law. This prohibits spouses in these relationships from taking advantage of various federal programs and benefits available to opposite-sex spouses. For example, Edie Windsor, the respondent in the pending Supreme Court action, was required to pay over three hundred thousand dollars in federal taxes on her deceased wife's estate which would not have been due had the federal government recognized their marriage, which was valid in New York state, where Windsor resides. The House of Representatives, which will defend the constitutionality of the law before the Supreme Court, also filed its merits brief on Tuesday, and the case will be argued on March 26.

Already, there is some speculation that the Supreme Court will "split the baby" on the issue of same-sex marriage, invalidating the federal definition of marriage enacted by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and either refusing to decide the Proposition 8 case (perhaps by finding that the initiative's supporters don't have standing to defend the law) or reversing the Ninth Circuit's decision on some narrow grounds. A pair of decisions like this would provide substantial benefits to married same-sex couples under federal law, but leave the fundamental issue of marriage equality an open question among the states.

This is a certain appeal to predicting this kind of "compromise" outcome. There is a kind of cowardly strategic impulse that striking DOMA and dodging Proposition 8 enjoys. Though the Court would please neither strong supporters of same-sex marriage nor its strong opponents, it would also avoid a substantial backlash from either camp while letting the marriage issue continue to percolate. (More cynically, predicting a split decision is also a way for prognosticators to hedge their bets should both cases go the same direction.) Most importantly, predicting that the outcome of the marriage cases will together land in some political middle ground falls nicely into line with the heuristic of the Supreme Court as a institution divided between four liberals, four conservatives, and Anthony Kennedy.

Yet, I suspect that such a compromise outcome is unlikely.

First, a majority of the Court's justices probably favor extending the constitutional right to marry to same sex couples. The four members of the Court's liberal wing---Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kaga, and Sotomayor---almost certainly support marriage equality. It is likely that Justice Kennedy shares this sentiment and, I think, would be willing to join a majority for marriage equality.

Though it is tempting to think of the Court's "swing voter," Justice Anthony Kennedy, as a moderate who might like to stake out a compromise position on same-sex marriage, I don't think that's right. As Jeffrey Toobin has explained it, Kennedy is "not a moderate but an extremist—of varied enthusiasms." Recall, for example, that Kennedy took the lead among the Court's conservative justices against the Affordable Care Act. Had Chief Justice Roberts not gotten cold feet, Justice Kennedy's dissent in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius would have been a majority opinion striking down President Obama's health care reform law in its entirety on Commerce Clause grounds.

More to the point here, Kennedy not only joined the majority in two of the Court's most important pro-gay rights cases, Romer v. Evans (which invalidated an amendment to Colorado's constitution that essentially prohibited the state or local governments from including homosexuals as a protected class in antidiscrimination laws) and Lawrence v. Texas (which invalidated state laws prohibiting consensual, private sexual activity, including homosexual sodomy), he wrote the majority opinion.

In each case, Kennedy wrote about gay rights broadly in terms that connected homosexuals' claims on equality and liberty to fundamental constitutional rights. Indeed, Kennedy's opinions make strong connections between the struggle for gay rights and previous civil rights movements as well as between the right to sexual liberty and the right to form relationships and marry. With apologies for their length, these passages from Romer and Lawrence make Kennedy's convictions about gay rights and his legal thinking on Equal Protection and privacy issues quite clear.

From Romer:
[Colorado's] Amendment 2 confounds this normal process of judicial review. It is at once too narrow and too broad. It identifies persons by a single trait and then denies them protection across the board. The resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence. The absence of precedent for Amendment 2 is itself instructive; "[d]iscriminations of an unusual character especially suggest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision."

It is not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort. Central both to the idea of the rule of law and to our own Constitution's guarantee of equal protection is the principle that government and each of its parts remain open on impartial terms to all who seek its assistance. "Equal protection of the laws is not achieved through indiscriminate imposition of inequalities." Respect for this principle explains why laws singling out a certain class of citizens for disfavored legal status or general hardships are rare. A law declaring that in general it shall be more difficult for one group of citizens than for all others to seek aid from the government is itself a denial of equal protection of the laws in the most literal sense. "The guaranty of `equal protection of the laws is a pledge of the protection of equal laws."...

Even laws enacted for broad and ambitious purposes often can be explained by reference to legitimate public policies which justify the incidental disadvantages they impose on certain persons. Amendment 2, however, in making a general announcement that gays and lesbians shall not have any particular protections from the law, inflicts on them immediate, continuing, and real injuries that outrun and belie any legitimate justifications that may be claimed for it. We conclude that, in addition to the far reaching deficiencies of Amendment 2 that we have noted, the principles it offends, in another sense, are conventional and venerable; a law must bear a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose, and Amendment 2 does not. 

The primary rationale the State offers for Amendment 2 is respect for other citizens' freedom of association, and in particular the liberties of landlords or employers who have personal or religious objections to homosexuality. Colorado also cites its interest in conserving resources to fight discrimination against other groups. The breadth of the Amendment is so far removed from these particular justifications that we find it impossible to credit them. We cannot say that Amendment 2 is directed to any identifiable legitimate purpose or discrete objective. It is a status based enactment divorced from any factual context from which we could discern a relationship to legitimate state interests; it is a classification of persons undertaken for its own sake, something the Equal Protection Clause does not permit. "[C]lass legislation . . . [is] obnoxious to the prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment . . . ."

We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws. Amendment 2 violates the Equal Protection Clause, and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado is affirmed. [Citations omitted.]
From Lawrence:
The Court began its substantive discussion in Bowers as follows: “The issue presented is whether the Federal Constitution confers a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy and hence invalidates the laws of the many States that still make such conduct illegal and have done so for a very long time.” That statement, we now conclude, discloses the Court’s own failure to appreciate the extent of the liberty at stake. To say that the issue in Bowers was simply the right to engage in certain sexual conduct demeans the claim the individual put forward, just as it would demean a married couple were it to be said marriage is simply about the right to have sexual intercourse. The laws involved in Bowers and here are, to be sure, statutes that purport to do no more than prohibit a particular sexual act. Their penalties and purposes, though, have more far-reaching consequences, touching upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home. The statutes do seek to control a personal relationship that, whether or not entitled to formal recognition in the law, is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished as criminals.

This, as a general rule, should counsel against attempts by the State, or a court, to define the meaning of the relationship or to set its boundaries absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects. It suffices for us to acknowledge that adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons. When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice....

In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, the Court reaffirmed the substantive force of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause. The Casey decision again confirmed that our laws and tradition afford constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. In explaining the respect the Constitution demands for the autonomy of the person in making these choices, we stated as follows:

“These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.” Ibid.

Persons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes, just as heterosexual persons do. [Citations omitted.]
Additionally, upending DOMA while sidestepping or preserving Proposition 8 is logically inconsistent. The provisions of the two enactments under review are substantively identical. Both restrict homosexual couples' access to the institution of marriage, and supporters of each enactment allege much the same state interest in preserving marriage as an opposite-sex institution. The defenders of Proposition 8 argue that preserving a traditional definition of marriage advances the government's interest in "regulat[ing] sexual relationships between men and women so that the unique procreative capacity of such relationships benefits rather than harms society." Likewise, DOMA's supporters argue that it furthers the legitimate government interest in encouraging "heterosexual relationships, with their unique tendency to produce unintended offspring, to be channeled into an institution designed to facilitate the raising of such offspring."

Legally, if the interest at stake in DOMA is not sufficiently "rational" or if a majority of the justices view it as a pretense to justify a policy motivated by animus toward homosexuals, it should fall. If DOMA falls, Proposition 8 shares its fatal flaw. Sure, the Court could side-step the issue for the time being by finding that the group defending Proposition 8 does not have standing to do so in federal court, but doing so would create substantial policy problems and run against strong currents in public opinion.

In terms of policy, ending DOMA and leaving marriage equality up to the states alone is nothing but trouble. It would put the Supreme Court in the position of positively leaving same-sex couples living in different states with different access to the "fundamental...freedom of choice to marry," and would start an avalanche of federal claims related to same-sex couples who legally marry in one state and ultimately move to another state which does not recognize same-sex unions. Ending DOMA would ultimately be the beginning of the final countdown to national marriage equality whatever the resolution of Hollingsworth might be in this term of the Court.

In terms of public opinion, most polls indicate that a majority of Americans now favor same-sex marriage outright. More importantly, support for same-sex marriage is rapidly growing. For example, in 2004, an NBC News poll found that 61% of Americans opposed "allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into same-sex marriages," with 51% "strongly" opposing same-sex marriages. Only 30% of Americans supported marriage equality. In late 2012, another NBC News poll (asking the same question), found that 51% of Americans now support allowing same-sex couples to marry with only 40% expressing opposition. In the course of eight years, nearly a fifth of the American people swung from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting it, and it is reasonable to suspect that support for marriage equality will continue to grow in the future.

By acting strongly in favor of same-sex marriage---that is, by ending DOMA and invalidating Proposition 8 and other similar state laws that restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples a majority of the Court's members would avoid creating a hash out of our de facto national marriage policy, align itself with a solid and growing majority of Americans who support marriage equality, and get the policy outcome they want. Of course, the Court risks as backlash from a dedicated minority who oppose same-sex marriage, but given the current configuration of power in Congress and the White House, there is effectively no way for this minority to effectively retaliate or undermine the Court. A majority of the Court's justices are therefore substantially unconstrained, either by public opinion or by coordinate branches of government, from pursuing an ambitious agenda of marriage equality if they so choose.