It depends on two cases the Supreme Court is hearing this week, and will probably rule on late in June. On Tuesday, they will hear Hollingsworth v. Perry, and on Wednesday they will hear United States v. Windsor.
Windsor and DOMA
Edie Windsor is challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), specifically Section 3 which reads,
In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.
This was passed by the House by 342 to 67, by the Senate by 85 to 14 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on 21 September, 1996.
The law was drafted by Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr in response to a ruling of the Supreme Court of Hawaii striking down a prohibition on same-sex marriage, based on the equality provisions of the Hawaii state constitution (subsequently overturned by Hawaiian voters). DOMA allowed states to provide for same-sex marriage, but this would not recognised by either the other states or by the federal government. This was several years before Massachusetts became the first state to permanently allow same-sex couples to marry in 2004.
Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, both residents of New York, were engaged in 1965, and finally married in 2007 in Toronto, Canada. Spyer died in 2009, leaving her estate to her wife. This was before New York performed same-sex marriages, but they recognised marriages performed elsewhere. However, Windsor received a federal estate tax bill of $363,000 because the federal government did not recognise their marriage. As Windsor put it, ‘If Thea was Theo, I would not have to pay those taxes’.
With attorney Roberta Kaplan, Windsor filed in the federal courts. In February 2011, US Attorney-General Eric Holder announced that his department would not defend the law. Paul Clement, who served as Solicitor-General for Bush 2004–08, sought to defend it on behalf of the Republican-dominated Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), and Holder agreed to facilitate this.
In June 2012, Judge Barbara Jones of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in favour of Edie Windsor. She based this on the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment,
No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
Judge Jones further noted that DOMA could not pass even the standard of review of having a rational basis, the most basic standard of scrutiny.
The government lodged an appeal, again to facilitate the defence from the BLAG, which was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in October 2012. This was again appealed, and the United State Supreme Court agreed to hear it. There were many briefs filed on both sides, included one in favour of ruling DOMA unconstitutional by the US government. It will be heard this Wednesday.
Hollingsworth v. Perry
Two couples, Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, are challenging Proposition 8, an amendment to the California Constitution, passed in November 2008 with 52% in favour, which added a new Section 7.5,
Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.
The Proposition was proposed after the California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 in favour of allowing same-sex couples to marry.
In May 2009, the American Foundation for Equal Rights filed in the federal courts against Proposition 8, representing two couples. Among the attorneys for the four plaintiffs, were two who faced off against each other in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case that halted the recount of the Florida votes, and so confirmed the 2000 election for George W. Bush. Ted Olson had represented Bush, while David Boies had represented Al Gore. Ted Olson later served as Solicitor-General for Bush 2001–04, preceding Clement mentioned above.
Then California Attorney-General, Jerry Brown, declined to defend, as he believed the case that it was unconstitutional. Then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lodged a defence, though he did not participate, and the case preceded as Perry v. Schwarzenegger. The court recognised Dennis Hollingsworth of Protect Marriage, a proponent of Prop 8, as the defence.
The combination of an outstanding legal team on behalf of the plaintiffs, and a very weak defence, has made the transcript of the hearing legendary among advocates for equal marriage, and highlights were reconstructed by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black:
In August 2010, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled for the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, giving a sweeping judgment in favour of the plaintiffs, ruling Proposition 8 unconstitutional. He found a constitutional right of gay couples to marry, citing both the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,
No State … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
He also ruled that gay men and lesbians should be acknowledged as class of minority which merit a strict scrutiny in review of laws, and listed eighty findings of fact to assert his case.
This ruling was appealed, and in February 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the unconstitutionality of Proposition 8, but on narrower grounds. Judge Reinhardt appealed on due process grounds to the manner in which the right to marry was removed from gay couples in California without a valid reason, rather than on whether a fundamental right to marry had been infringed.
Dennis Hollingsworth proceeded to appeal this ruling, and there were similarly many briefs on both sides, which drew more attention than those in Windsor, as the dealt with the more fundamental question of constitutionality of bans on gay couples marrying. The US government filed a brief in favour of ruling Prop 8 unconstitutional. It will be heard on Tuesday.
What should we expect?
Very few commentators expect that the rulings will not shift the balance of rights of gay couples in favour of equal marriage. The question is a matter of degree. Specifically on a repeal of Section 3 of DOMA, it is widely expected that Edie Windsor will be successful and that the US Federal Government will then recognise marriage between same-sex couples. This would not have an effect in the 41 states which do not currently perform same-sex marriages, but couples living in those states could marry elsewhere, and their marriages would e recognised at a state level.
The big question then is how far should be expect the court to rule of Proposition 8. Very few expect them to overturn both lower court rulings and find that Prop 8 was in fact constitutional. The extent of a favourable ruling could vary:
- they could rule that Dennis Hollingsworth does not have legal standing to appeal the case. This would deny his right to appeal the case, and leave the District Court ruling intact in California, but would have no effect outside of the state. Michael McConnell. In Diamond v. Charles, the Supreme Court ruled that an anti-abortion doctor did not have the right to defend his state’s law when the attorney-general declined to do so. Also, in 1998, the Supreme Court ruled in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona that the supporters of a ballot imitative did not have standing to appeal.
- they could adopt the ruling of the Ninth Circuit and rule Prop 8 unconstitutional because it removed a right which gay couples had. This would have no immediate effect outside of California, though it would mean that a ballot imitative to forbid same-sex marriage in any of the nine states which allow it would be unconstitutional.
- they could adopt the reasoning of the brief filed by the US government (and so the official stance of the Obama administration as of February), that states may not be permitted to draw an artificial distinction between opposite-sex and same-sex couples through an institution as domestic partnership, as there could be no claim of a rational basis for denying marriage in those circumstances. This would also introduce equal marriage in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
- using the same case as Judge Walker in the District Court, they could find a constitutional right to marry for gay and lesbian couples, which would result in equal marriage in all fifty states.
Let’s hope for the last of these. It would end the debate once and for all. It is moving in one direction. Some of the older more conservative gay activists, such as Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch have stated a preference for a narrow ruling, fearing a backlash, and claiming that this is a better to win by convincing the hearts and minds of voters and legislatures, state by state, rather than a sweeping judgment now. That is very easy to say for them, both of them married, in Massachusetts and DC respectively. A sweeping ruling this year would remove it from the political sphere. There will be a backlash in some places, but one that die away sooner that one might think, and with better consequences for the gay people of Mississippi than waiting till 2024, as Nate Silver predicted they would have to (albeit on a projection that was a few years out of date). It will move on, much more than the judgment in Roe v. Wade on abortion was accepted.
Ultimately, I think they should rule in favour because I think it is a constitutional matter. Not one that might have been perceived till recently, but that was in the very nature of the Fourteenth Amendment even as it was drafted in 1866, that inequality as yet unperceived would be ruled against.
And I am hopeful. I don’t necessarily agree with Emily Bazelon, who worried about the Court taking this case, as this is not 1986 as far as visibility for gay people goes. The focus is on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the court’s opinion in both Romer v. Evans in 1996, which overturned a ballot initiative in Colorado declaring that gay and lesbians could not be protected by any city or county in the state, and Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which overturned the anti-sodomy laws of 14 states. Both of these were 6–3 decisions. Kennedy is not a progressive justice; he has supported restrictions on abortion, wrote the decision in Citizens United and voted in the minority to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Yet he has good form on gay rights.
Two of those who voted against both Romer and Lawrence, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, are still on the court can be counted straightaway as votes to uphold Prop 8 and DOMA (the most David Boies would consider in a recent interview was 7–2). Four Justices are likely to go at least as far as Kennedy, two appointed by Clinton, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and two appointed by Obama, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. That leaves the two appointed by Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
I would not be surprised to see Roberts vote with the majority to strike down DOMA. He is very mindful of the long-term standing of the Court, and this may at least subconsciously play into his decision. In his early practice, he was involved in preparing the gay rights side in Romer. I have no reason to make such a call on Alito.
On a side note, a wily Republican strategist should quietly hope for a sweeping judgment. This would remove the question from the next electoral cycle, and mean that the 2016 candidates will be able to avoid it at a time when the electorate in general is moving towards accepting equal marriage at a far faster pace than their Republican primary base. They could give some response like, ‘It wasn’t the approach I had supported, but I accept the decision of the courts. What matters now is working with all those who wish to strengthen the institution of marriage in society’.
A sweeping judgment would also be the only one that would really have much effect from the international perspective. And it would have an effect on the debate here in Ireland, enhancing the case for equal marriage as a clear shift among those countries we have most in common with, if added to Britain and France this year too, and the eight other European countries that currently allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.
The US Supreme Court will hear Perry v. Hollingsworth this spring (as well as challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, which most observers do expect to be overturned), a mere decade after decriminalising relations between men. This is a high stakes game in the battle for equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples. On the one hand, the Court could rule that the fundamental constitutional right to marry should be restricted by sex, protected by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and immediately in force in all fifty US States. On the other, they could rule that this is a standard policy question to be decided by each state, whether by state courts, legislature or popular vote. Were they to rule in this way, the process would continue as it did in November, with a steady and growing number of states providing for equality, but leaving gay people in states like North Carolina waiting some time.
This court battle arose after California voted for Proposition 8 in November 2008, the same day they voted for Barack Obama for president. This amended the California constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. This overturned a state court ruling in favour of equal marriage earlier that year. The 10,000 couples who had married could stay married, but no more gay couples could.
In 2009, Ted Olson and David Boies were announced as the legal team who would challenge Proposition 8 against the US Constitution. They had faced off against each other in Bush v. Gore, but now combined in the fight for equality in the case filed as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, representing two women and two men who each wished to marry. They based their case on three key points:
- that the US Constitution protects a fundamental right to marriage;
- that being denied marriage negatively affects gay and lesbian couples and their families;
- and that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry will in no way harm marriage for heterosexual couples
During the trial, both the lawyers defending Prop 8 and its chief dependent provided great moments that only bolstered the case of the plaintiffs. When asked what harm same-sex marriage would bring, the defence lawyer could only answer, “I don’t know”. David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute for American Values, admitted that the law would be more American on the day it allowed gay people to marry (he has since publicly declared that he now supports equal marriage).
In August 2010, the District Court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, finding a fundamental right to marry, and striking down Prop 8. Its proponents challenged this to the Circuit Court, losing there. However, this ruling, in February 2012, was narrower, applying it only to the specific circumstances of California. They ruled that because Prop 8 removed a right that had existed for a number of months before November 2008, and without good cause, it could not stand. They did not rule on a constitutional right did marry, so the ruling did not apply to other states in the Ninth Circuit. The Prop 8 supporters appealed this ruling to the next stage, the Supreme Court.
Any sensible advocate of equal marriage would have hoped that the Supreme Court would not hear this appeal. Had they not, California would today be joining the states where gay couples can marry.
But sometimes it’s good to be bold. It could go roughly three ways. Worst case is the appeal is successful and Prop 8 is allowed to stand. They could side with the Ninth Circuit and rule in favour of the specific circumstances, without touching on the question of a fundamental right, leaving that for a future date.
But if the Justices have a sense of history, they may decide not to seen as the court who fudged this question. We could see another ruling on gay equality authored by Anthony Kennedy. He has a clear libertarian mindset, seen in the nature of his opposition to the Affordable Care Act last year. He wrote the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which removed statutes criminalising male homosexual relations, as well as a case on the mid 1990s striking down a ballot measure in Colorado which allowed discrimination based on sexuality.
With the great, clear and coherent case presented by Olson and Boies, we could see the end of the battle for marriage equality. The court could decide to just save a lot if people time and energy, in what might otherwise be dragged on for a decade more or so. And the very fact that this is considered a definite possibility, even by those who see it as the less likely outcome, shows in itself how far the debate has shifted.
This is not 2004. In that year, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favour of allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, the first US state to allow this. It was only a year after Lawrence v. Texas, in which the US Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 14 states. In that year’s presidential election, the Republican incumbent George W. Bush proposed a Federal Marriage Amendment to amend the US Constitution to define marriage as between a man and and a woman, prohibiting states from enacting laws to contrary effect. It would have been the second Amendment to restrict the freedoms of US citizens, the first being the 18th Amendment in 1919, introducing prohibition (repealed in 1933). President Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry, a Senator from Massachusetts, supported civil unions, while opposing both equal marriage and any proposal to define marriage at a federal level. Referendums to amend state constitutions to define marriage as only between a man and a woman appeared on the ballot in a number of states in November 2004, driving up conservative turnout, and contributing to the vote of Bush against Kerry, in what was a close election.
But a lot has changed in those eight years on the issue of gay marriage. Then it seemed destined to be a nice feature of certain liberal enclaves, whether in the US or in Europe. Now it seems an inevitability, only a matter of time across most of the developed world. Last year, public tracking polling by Gallup showed for the first time that a majority of Americans supported legal gay marriage, with 53% in favour and 45% against. The figures in 2004 were 55% in favour, and 42% against. The figures in 2004 were 42% in favour and 55% against, and they remained steady till last year. An annual tracking poll should be reliable, but in case it looks too sudden to be credible, it was corroborated by similar figures from the Washington Post (53%) and CNN (51%).
Today in California, one of the most significant debate on whether gay and lesbian couples should have equal rights to marriage is coming to a conclusion. This is the federal case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which is at the stage of closing statements from both teams, which is hoping to overturn Proposition 8, which passed an amendment to the Californian constitution banning gays and lesbians from marrying under the Californian Constitution. This was passed on 4 November 2008, the same date Barack Obama was elected president.
When I first heard of the case last summer was being taken at a federal level, I was a little wary. I felt that given this would eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court, and that given the delicate balance of the Supreme Court, it was likely that Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing voter, would ensure at least 5-4 against the plaintiffs, and set back the case of marriage equality for a decade or so. Many of the groups who had campaigned against Prop 8 felt similarly.
Now, after the close of hearings, I’m more optimistic about the benefits of the case. It made news because it brought to together the conservative Ted Olson and the liberal David Boies, who had been on opposing sides in Bush v. Gore in 2000, jointly representing the plaintiffs, two couples who had failed to get married during the period where it was possible for them in 2008. They were backed by the newly formed American Foundation for Equal Rights, which had on its board John Podesta, former Clinton White Chief of Staff and President of the Center for American Progress, and Robert Levy, President of the Cato Institute, one of the leading libertarian think-tanks.
Considering the proceedings of the court to date, I would not be surprised if the case was ruled in the plaintiffs’ favour, given the weak evidence and reliance on research from anti-gay activists like George Rekers who were over-compensating for their own repressed homosexuality. But even if it were to fail, and to fail again on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, good will come from the nature of the evidence presented.
If it does fail, it will probably not be opposition’s case that allowing any couple to marry would undermine the state’s interest in encouraging marriage for the benefit of children, or that the institution of marriage in society would in some way be weakened. If it fails, it will most likely be because of a judgement that as the people believed there was a rational basis for denying marriage rights, the court is not in a position to overrule them.
The benefits of the case, whatever the outcome, is threefold. On the one hand, it has provided the most thorough setting in which the arguments of both sides have been scrutinized, and the fault lines and weaknesses highlighted. Whatever the next forum for this debate, it now must take place at a more informed level. Secondly, the symbolic effect of the legal team and its backers matters. The right of gay couples to marry is being seen less and less as a matter of left against right, of liberals against conservatives. For Levy and Podesta to co-author an op-ed in the “Marriage equality for all couples”, will make more American start to question their preconceptions on the issue. As would Ted Olson article in Newsweek earlier this years, “The conservative case for gay marriage”. Finally, the lives of the four plaintiffs will seem familiar in their ordinariness to many: Kris Perry and Sandy Stier together ten years and raising four boys, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo nine years, all in very conventional careers.