Chief Justice John Roberts is usually a reliable vote among the conservatives on the nine-member court. Yet in NFIB v Sibelius (2012), he voted with the four liberals to find that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was constitutional. He did so on narrower grounds than the four liberals, relying on the taxation power rather than the commerce clause. It is widely accepted that Roberts had originally intended to strike down the law, but changed his mind in the month beforehand, based in part on the political calculus that it would damage the Court’s political reputation were it to strike down Barack Obama’s key legislative achievement. It would have appeared too partisan for the five justices appointed by Republican presidents to vote to strike it down, with the four appointed by Democratic presidents to vote to uphold it, and affected the court’s reputation as a neutral umpire calling ball and strikes.
The ACA is back before the court this term, in King v Burwell, not on the validity of the law, but its application. But if Roberts did not hinder it in 2012, he is unlikely to do so now after so many have already taken advantage of it. And in this case, he has cover from Anthony Kennedy, who voted against the ACA in NFIB, seems likely to uphold its application in this case.
The blockbuster case of this term is Obergefell v Hodges and its related cases, which will be heard this Tuesday, and is likely to settle the question of equal marriage for gay couples in the United States. The court themselves admit the difference between it and other cases this term with a link to briefs for the case on their home page, and agreeing to release the audio recording of oral argument on Tuesday, rather than waiting till the end of the week as standard.
There’s no reason to expect that any of the five justices who struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v Windsor (2013) will not apply similar reasoning to state bans on same-sex marriage. But Roberts was in the minority in Windsor. Why would he vote to strike down these bans at a state level if he would not do that to the federal legislation two years ago?
John Roberts was appointed as Chief Justice in 2005 at the age of 50. Four of the associate justices are aged between 76 and 82. We should expect that Roberts will remain leading the court till at least 2030. Roberts is politically astute enough to know that this case will be regarded as a landmark. Will he want to risk the opprobrium of legal analysts in a decade’s time appearing before him wondering how he could have got it so wrong? It’s easier for Antonin Scalia, not being in the pole position of Chief Justice, or indeed Samuel Alito, who like Roberts was appointed in 2005 by George W. Bush.
Scalia and Alito both gave lengthy dissents in Windsor, with which Clarence Thomas joined. Roberts, by contrast, wrote a succinct dissent, of a mere three pages. He joined Scalia only on the jurisdictional matter, finding that the court should not have decided the case at all, as the United States government was not contesting Edie Windsor’s claim. Roberts’ short dissent justified the Defense of Marriage Act on the basis of uniformity of marriage rules, rather than the blistering terms of Scalia’s dissent defending the enforcement of traditional moral and sexual norms.
Might Roberts wish to deprive Kennedy the pleasure of his place in history of completing a series of judgments in favour of constitutional protection to gay people. From Romer v Evans (1996), to Lawrence v Texas (2003), to United States v Windsor (2013), Anthony Kennedy wrote all of the case law progressing gay equality. Eric Segall recently wrote about the rivalry between Roberts and Kennedy for perceived control of the court.
The author who writes opinion of the court is assigned by the most senior justice in the majority. If the majority is the same five as in Windsor, that would be Anthony Kennedy, who will surely assign it to himself. But if Roberts were to join the majority as the sixth vote in favour of requiring all states to license a marriage between two people of the same sex, he could then choose to assign the opinion to himself.
So, both because he should be able to project the landmark status of the decision, and because of rivalry with the other moderate conservative voice, don’t be surprised if Roberts strikes down the bans. But aside from the politics of it, there’s nothing in any of his other votes on social reform cases to suggest that he will do so!
Today, the US Supreme Court denied certiorari to challenges to decisions of the Fourth, Seventh and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal, which had in turn upheld decisions of federal district courts that bans on lesbian and gay couples from marrying in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin contravened provisions of the US Constitution.
This had the immediate consequence of bringing equal civil marriage to these five states. The effect of supreme court not taking a decision led to the biggest expansion by number of states seen to date.
The day continued, as Colorado dropped its challenge. So how does the Circuit system work, and which states could be next?
Beneath the Supreme Court, the United States is administered by geographically-based courts of appeals. This table details the division, with those states which at the time of writing have equal civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples highlighted in bold:
|1st||Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island|
|2nd||Connecticut, New York, Vermont|
|3rd||Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania|
|4th||Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia|
|5th||Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas|
|6th||Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee|
|7th||Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin|
|8th||Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota|
|9th||Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington|
|10th||Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming|
|11th||Alabama, Florida, Georgia|
|DC||District of Columbia|
A rule of precedent applies at each of these levels. The district courts in the states are bound by decisions of the court of appeals of their own circuit, just as the circuit courts of appeal are bound by the supreme court. This is why the attorney-general in Colorado dropped the challenge so soon after the news today; with the decisions of the tenth circuit court of appeals that found bans in Utah and Oklahoma to be unconstitutional fully in effect, the same would result with any defence of the ban in Colorado.
We should then soon see a similar situation in North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia in the Fourth Circuit, and in Kansas and Wyoming in the Tenth, from a combination of state officials not defending the bans, and district court judges coming to swift decisions based on these precedents.
We are awaiting decisions from the Sixth Circuit, which heard arguments in the beginning of August, and from the Ninth Circuit, which heard arguments at the beginning of September. While the court in the Ninth Circuit seemed to follow the trend of most federal courts, in being more critical of the arguments for maintaining the bans, this is less certain in the Sixth Circuit. Listening to the oral argument, I would agree with Stern that Judge Sutton didn’t seem eager to press ahead with this. However, a few things have changed since early August, from Judge Posner’s excellent, cutting judgment in the Seventh Circuit, to the denial of cert by the Supreme Court today.
In the Sixth Circuit, Judge Sutton asked on a number of occasions why he would not be bound by the precedent of the Supreme Court in Baker v Nelson (1971), in which the court wrote succinctly on a Minnesota case on a gay couple, “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question”. This was a mandatory review, so was considered binding on the merits. However, with the denial of cert today, Judge Sutton can no longer hide behind Baker, as the Supreme Court has effectively that it doesn’t see the decisions favouring equality as a challenge to its precedent.
I don’t think the Supreme Court will hear a case unless and until any of the circuit courts uphold the constitutionality of a state ban. This could occur in the Sixth Circuit; it could also occur in the Fifth Circuit, which will be hearing cases relating to Texas and Louisiana soon. These are appeals to ban in Texas which was struck down, and a ban in Louisiana which will be upheld.
Equality advocates want the Supreme Court to hear a case on this matter sooner rather than later, to lead to an opinion that with one fell swoop would bring equal civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples across the whole of the United States. There is little reason to suppose that any of the five who voted to strike down a section of the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v Windsor (2013) would not also strike down all bans as unconstitutional, least of all the one who wrote that judgment, Justice Anthony Kennedy. The four who would have upheld DOMA surely suppose the same thing of their colleagues as the rest of us.
There is another interest too here, that of standing by the sovereignty and competence of lower courts. It is within their remit to determine constitutional questions within their jurisdiction; the Supreme Court should not hear a case simply because there’s public demand for a decision of a lower court to be extended.
It takes four justices to grant cert to a case. In the case of these circuit decisions, the five were of course happy to let them stand; the four may not have agreed with them, but not either wish to hasten the moment when the court would rule for equality for all.
This is why supporters of equality might paradoxically hope that either the Fifth or Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals will decide to uphold bans. Not only would there then be a circuit split, but a result the anti-DOMA 5 would surely feel confident to see challenged before the whole court.
We’ll wait and see.
While I gather my thoughts and feelings about the live issue of free speech and suits for defamation, another case relating to free speech, the media and a suit for libel came to mind.
Fifty years ago this month, the US Supreme Court heard the cases of New York Times v. Sullivan and Abernathy v. Sullivan. On 29 March, 1960 The New York Times published a full-page advertisement from the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King. It included the names of twenty religious ministers working in the south in the civil rights campaign.
The Montgomery Police Public Safety Commissioner L. B. Sullivan sued both The New York Times and four of the ministers named, Ralph Abernathy, S. S. Seay, Fred Shuttlesworth and Joseph Lowery, for $500,000, based on inaccuracies in the text of the ad. For example, the ad stated that King had been arrested seven times, when in fact he had been arrested four times. The Alabama trial court and supreme court both found in favour of Sullivan, and awarded him the full sum of money. This led to similar suits, which would have hurt both the civil rights movement and the possibility of press coverage of abuses in southern states quite severely. It was widely believed that this was the ultimate aim; not the award of money to Sullivan and others, but to ensure that they could continue to act without scrutiny.
With US Supreme Court upholding two lower court rulings, Edie Windsor has been successful in her challenge to Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage at a federal level as between a man and a woman.
This means that gay couples who marry in the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, and in the District of Columbia.
In the case to uphold Proposition 8, Hollingsworth v. Perry, which began as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the Supreme Court ruled that Dennis Hollingsworth did not have legal standing to challenge the District Court ruling. He heads Protect Marriage, the group that pushed to get Proposition 8 on the ballot, but the Court ruled that this did not give him a right to challenge what was a state law, and therefore within the remit of the governor and attorney-general of California, Gerry Brown and Kamala Harris, to challenge the lower court rulings, and both of them support agree that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
This decision is legally sound, and has precedent in Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona. It is almost surprising then that Court granted cert to the case, and we’ll never know which of the four decided to do so.
So gay couples will soon be able to marry again in California, having been able to do so during a few months in 2008.
I was particularly pleased that Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote his opinion based on equal protection, rather than states’ rights. This is the third major gay rights ruling of his, afterRomer v. Evans in 1996, which overturned exemptions of gay people from discrimination laws, and Lawrence and Garner v. Texas ten years ago today in 2003, which overturned remaining anti-sodomy laws. All in all, a strong ally for gay people on the bench. Will he have a chance to go one further and extend marriage for gay and lesbian couples nationwide?
We will have to wait to get a challenge from a couple in a state whose governor and attorney-general will continue to defend such a prohibition all the way to the supreme court, and preferably in a state where there is a reasonable prospect of a district or circuit court ruling in favour of equal marriage.
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.