Why marriage might return to the US Supreme Court and why this time it’s different
The new term of the US Supreme Court begins today, and their docket for this term will begin to fill up. The nine members of the court decide themselves which cases to hear, of the many appeals from lower court decisions across the country. Among they many they could choose this term are a number of defences to state bans on either the recognition or performance of marriage between couples of the same sex. This would lead to a decision affecting all US states by June 2015. It is not long since the Supreme Court last considered cases relating to marriage, when they ruled on United States v Windsor in 2013, leading the federal recognition of marriages between same-sex couples as performed by these states. Why makes these cases different?
A lot of the commentary in June 2013 spoke of the compromise the court reached, in striking down the ban on federal recognition in Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), while declining to consider the implications of the other case before it beyond California. This is a simplistic view of that case. This second case that year was Hollingsworth v Perry, a case which originated as Perry v Schwarzenegger, the culmination of a challenge to Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative which had added to the California constitution the clause, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”. In August 2010, US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker became the first of many federal judges to find a ban on same-sex marriage to contravene the US constitution. The state of California accepted the court’s ruling, and the appeal was taken up by those who had campaigned for Proposition 8. The Supreme Court that they did not have standing to do so, i.e. they did not have a direct stake in the outcome. It remained a matter for an organ of the state to defend a state law. Rather than being a formula drafted to dodge addressing a hot-button issue too soon, it would have been more questionable had they decided to consider the case. In 1996, the court came to a similar conclusion in Arizonans for Official English v Arizona, and the court should adhere to its precedents unless there are clear and compelling reasons to revisit a previous ruling.
Windsor ruled on Section 3 of DOMA, as this was the only question before it in that case. Writing the opinion of the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy held in clear and eloquent terms that the provision was unconstitutional. He wrote with an understanding of the change in attitudes we are witnessing, “until recent years, many citizens had not even considered the possibility that two persons of the same sex might aspire to occupy the same status and dignity as that of a man and woman in lawful marriage … Slowly at first and then in rapid course, the laws of New York came to acknowledge the urgency of this issue for same-sex couples who wanted to affirm their commitment to one another before their children, their family, their friends, and their community”. After acknowledging the many harms of such a ban on recognition, including to the children of same-sex couples, Kennedy concluded “What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage. This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws.”
While Justice Kennedy did spend a considerable portion of the opinion defending the right of the states against the federal government in relation to marriage, this was in support of New York in including same-sex couples. Citing Loving v. Virginia (the 1967 case which ended state bans on interracial marriage), he wrote “State laws defining and regulating marriage, of course, must respect the constitutional rights of persons”.
Following this judgment, many cases proceeded in federal district courts challenging state bans. The first judgment was in December 2013 in Utah, where Judge Robert Shelby cited not only the opinion of Kennedy in Windsor, but also the dissenting opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia, who predicted that it would be a very small step from striking down the federal provisions in DOMA to striking down the bans in the states. Ten other district court judges came to the same conclusion when considering state bans across the country, ruling each of them unconstitutional; in September, Judge Martin Feldman in Louisiana became the first to write a court opinion upholding such a ban.
While some of these decisions applied with brief effect, most of them were stayed pending further appeal, so marriage has not been extended in these states (Pennsylvania being an exception, where the state accepted the opinion of the district court).
The Circuit Court Appeals have issued opinions in the Tenth Circuit (cases from Utah and Oklahoma), in the Fourth Circuit (from Virginia), and in the Seventh Circuit (cases from Wisconsin and Indiana), and in all cases upholding decisions that state bans are unconstitutional. Crucially, in all these cases, officials from the state are defending the ban, distinguishing them from the situation in California.
The Supreme Court may now decide to take any one or all of these cases. If they choose not to hear those cases this term, then the circuit court decisions will stand, and marriage will be extended in those states, and nearly immediately in other states in those districts. However, the supreme court may wish to wait until there is a circuit split, i.e. when there are conflicting interpretations of the constitution from different circuit courts. It remains possible that appeals in other circuits will find in favour of the constitutionality of state bans; this seems quite likely to be the outcome in the Sixth Circuit, where Judge Jeffrey Sutton was quite skeptical of the merits of the constitutional case for equal marriage at oral argument in cases from Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. If this occurs, it is almost certain that they will be heard this year.
While those of us following the developments will wait eagerly to hear from the court today, I wouldn’t be holding my breath. In 2013, I tuned in on a weekly basis to whether they would take the Perry case, and which DOMA case they would consider; it was not until 7 December that this information was revealed.
Which still means that before Christmas, we should expect to know of a date in the spring when the Supreme Court will hear cases relating to the constitutionality of bans across the whole United States, with an opinion in June. I will of course return to this, to outline in clear terms why I believe they both should and will find that there is a constitutional right for couples of the same sex to marry, throughout the United States.