Home > LGBT, US politics > Could there be equal marriage across the United States this year?

Could there be equal marriage across the United States this year?

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.

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