Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Are the Proposition 8 Challengers Overplaying their Hand?

With the recent news that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari to a bevy of same-sex marriage cases; including Hollingsworth v. Perry, it looks like 2013 is already promising to be a landmark year, politically and doctrinally. With the cases before it, the highest court has the potential to entirely do away with all civil marriage laws in every state and the federal government which discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. However, many same-sex marriage proponents remain fearful that it might be too soon to go to the courts because if any or all of these cases backfire and the Court upholds any one of those laws, America might be stuck with a noxious Bowers v. Hardwick-like precedent for a generation. If the Supreme Court were to write an opinion considering and rejecting a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, that could prove calamitous to any future suits challenging state marriage laws in the federal courts.
To understand where the marriage equality movement now stands, now, at the end of the year 2012, same-sex marriage is the law of the land in 9 states and the District of Columbia. A lesbian couple can walk into any City Hall in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland, Washington State, and Washington, D.C. and successfully apply for a marriage license, their marriage is recognized as valid according to their state agencies and those of some (but not all) other states.  
 However, despite the gay marriage insurgency over the past eight years, there is still plenty of work to be done. In 41 states, LGBT Americans are still denied the right to marry, in 36 states they can’t even get a civil union. According to federal government agencies like the IRS, the Federal Housing Administration, and the Veterans Administration, all those marriages in Boston and Seattle and Des Moines have never happened. Thanks to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government treats a married couple like legal strangers, and uses it to deny the approximately 1,100 federal rights and responsibilities afforded to couples in civil marriage.
Enter Hollingsworth v. Perry. Originally Perry v. Schwarzenegger, then Perry v. Brown, this is the celebrated case by brought by Ted Olson and David Boies challenging California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative which California voters approved to ban same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment. Olson and Boies consider this to be the civil rights issue of our time (rightly so), and they see the potential for this case to result in a Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, striking down each and every Defense of Marriage Act in every state in the Union. Judging by their prior writings and public pronouncements, it seems that there might be four Justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor) who might be likely to support such a bold declaration for gay marriage rights. Though Justice Kennedy waxed eloquently in his majority opinions in Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas about the “dignity deserved by gay men and women”, it is unlikely that Kennedy might take such a striking pronouncement in this case because there are plenty of ways that the Court can make a decision leading to the nullification of this repugnant amendment without answering the fundamental question. 
First of all, the Court can deny the defendants standing, because Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris refuse to defend Prop. 8 – it is being defended by the coalition of anti-gay activists who organized the ballot number. Generally speaking, this is not very kosher – states have to defend their laws if they are going to appeal to the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS decides to reject the appeal on these grounds, or remand it back to a lower court and allow only the State of California to appeal, and the State refuses, then Prop 8 has already been struck down by the federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The effect would be that gay marriage is legal in California once again.  
More likely, the Court might make a very narrow ruling overturning Prop 8 essentially echoing Judge Stephen Reinhardt’s opinion in the Ninth Circuit decision. Judge Reinhardt, ever cognizant of the politics of the Court and the fact that Justice Anthony Kennedy is the swing vote, wrote a decision which took pains to invoke Kennedy’s prior opinions in Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. According to Reinhardt, the facts of this case mirror that in Romer; after some municipalities enacted ordinances banning discrimination against homosexuals, Colorado voters approved a ballot initiative which would prohibit any such anti-discrimination ordinances protecting the civil rights of homosexuals. In that landmark decision, Kennedy wrote that there was no basis for this referendum other than sheer “animus” against gay people; therefore, it failed basic rational basis review and was unconstitutional. Reinhardt also reiterated Kennedy’s emphasis on the fact that Coloradans had given gay people a civil right and then taken it away for no rational purpose – much like the present case in California. If consistency is a virtue, it appears most likely that Justice Kennedy would write the majority opinion or at least a controlling opinion along these lines. 
It is also possible that the four liberal Justices plus Kennedy might accept Olson and Boies’ argument that, lurking somewhere in the penumbras of the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments, the Constitution protects the individual’s fundamental right to same-sex marriage. Especially if you read Kennedy’s opinion in Lawrencev. Texas, which stressed that “[t]he petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives” and that, therefore, “[t]he State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny”, it appears that Kennedy feels quite sympathetic to the fundamental injustice that is perpetrated against same-sex couples nationwide by governmental denial of their intimate relationships. If you read Justice Kennedy’s opinions in Romer and Lawrence, you cannot help but think that if it came down to it, he would gladly write the decision that establishes a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. 
 However, to do this would mean that – in one fell swoop – the Supreme Court would establish gay marriage across the entire United States, ordering the legislatures of every state and jurisdiction which has not already enacted such a law – i.e. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and also Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, American Samoa, the Tribal nations, the U.S. Armed Forces, and the federal government to amend their family codes immediately. Marriage equality would reign supreme from sea to shining sea.  
However, there are reasons for such a bold move, both jurisprudential and political at this point in time. First of all, it seems that SCOTUS can affirm the Ninth Circuit’s theory as to why Prop 8 is unconstitutional without addressing the broader issue of whether or not the Constitution provides a fundamental right to same-sex marriage. According to the Doctrine of Ripening, the Court is an inherently conservative institution which ought to avoid constitutional issues if at all possible and to only address those constitutional questions which are absolutely necessary to the judicial review of a given law. In other words, the Court picks the lowest-hanging fruit. So long as the Court can strike down Proposition 8 for lack of standing or on the narrow Romer precedent, there is no need to reach for the lofty firmament of fundamental constitutional rights. 
Moreover, just imagine the political fallout if five (maybe six) Justices on the Supreme Court issue such a sweeping decision that allows LGBT Americans nationwide the right to marry.
For comparison, let’s compare status of legal same-sex marriage in 2013 to the status of legal abortion in 1973 – the year that the Court decided Roe v. Wade. When Justice Blackmun wrote that landmark decision, finding a fundamental right to abortion in the penumbras of the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments, states had just begun to liberalize their abortion laws. In 1967, Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina had paved the way for liberalizing the ban on abortion and allowing doctors to carry out the procedure in the case of rape, incest, and medical emergencies threatening the life and health of the mother. Only in four states – New York, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska – was abortion outright legal.
So in 1973 when Justice Blackmun, by judicial fiat, declared abortion to be a fundamental right across the land, it energized the pro-life movement into a political behemoth not just in the Heartland but even in highly-Catholic, highly-Democratic states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Historians credit this decision with splintering the New Deal coalition, giving rise to organizations like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority, and the Christian Right’s takeover of the Republican Party. Roe v. Wade indirectly gave rise to 12 years of Reagan and Bush and the appointment of four conservative Supreme Court Justices – Scalia, Thomas, O’Connor, Kennedy – who tapered back Roe as far as they could. What was a stunningly progressive movement of liberalized abortion laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s – even in states like Kansas, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi – stopped dead in its tracks. The pro-life movement and the growth of the Christian Right swung the politics of those same states swung so far to the right that, almost half a century later, it would be almost unthinkable that the legislatures in Topeka, Little Rock, Birmingham and Jackson could ever take such steps to advance human rights and the dignity of women on their own volition today as they did 40 years ago. 
So what would a sweeping decision in Hollingsworth v. Perry do to the movement for marriage equality? There are two schools of thought. 
The first hypothesis is that, like Brown v. Board of Education, Hollingsworth could establish a resounding opinion affirming the rights of same-sex couples that resolves this question once and for all. Every loving couple in not just San Francisco and West Hollywood but also Wichita, Caspar, Baton Rouge and Chattanooga would be able to go to City Hall and get their marriage license and live happily ever after. The End. 
The second hypothesis, which I fear is more likely, is that such a sweeping decision which changes the marriage laws of 41 states in one fell swoop creates an enormous backlash which sets back the cause of marriage equality, gay rights in a broader context – let alone liberal politics. Adam and Steve would be able to get their marriage license at the Montgomery City Hall, but there would be riots and lynch mobs outside. Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown and Phyllis Schlafly would hold rallies denouncing “judicial activism” at the courthouse steps of every county seat in every Congressional district in the country. It would look like this all over Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Republicans would take back the Senate in 2014, in 2016 Marco Rubio would win much of the heavily Catholic industrial Midwest and Southwest, and President Rubio would nominate replacements for Justices Breyer, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas who would make Robert Bork look like Leon Trotsky.  
In so many words, for Hollingsworth v. Perry  to establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage nationwide, at this juncture in time, might counterintuitively be very, very bad for the marriage equality movement in the long run.

When it is most successful, social progress is a gradual process which reaps one small victory at a time until, eventually, one day people look up and realize that that once crazy radical idea has become the mainstream consensus. That is why this student of law and politics hopes that the Court makes a decision in Hollingsworth which finds Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional – though along the narrow Romer v. Evans-like grounds that applies only to California. Mince no words – Hollingsworth v. Perry would go down down in American history as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – courthouse victory for the gay rights movement thusfar. The population of the United States able to marry a person of the same sex would instantly double.
2013 might yet be the most fruitful year in the history of the marriage equality movement. It looks like marriage equality statutes will be victorious at the statehouses in Illinois, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Delaware. The Colorado and Minnesota legislatures also appear to be poised to pass civil union laws. 2013  might end with a total of 14 states plus the District of Columbia with marriage equality, and civil union or strong domestic partnership laws in 5 others.
With the wind to its back, this is how the marriage equality movement has to turn the map purple: activists have to lobby their state senates, houses of representatives, and general assemblies to enact new laws and overturn state Defense of Marriage Acts one at a time, one by one until there’s something like 25 of them. At this rate, sometime around 2020 or 2025 there will probably be a majority of states, representing a clear majority of the population, with some form of either same-sex marriage or civil unions on the books. It’s only a matter of time.

When that time comes that the facts on the ground have shown that there is a consensus among the states and among the American people that allowing same-sex couples to marry is a matter of fundamental rights, and that those holdout states who are the outliers, then would be the proper time to go in for the kill. Only when it’s apparent that this new concept of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage has ripened and is ready to be picked will it be time for Ted Olson and David Boies to argue before the Supreme Court that a cute lesbian couple in Chattanooga denied a civil marriage license are being denied their fundamental rights guaranteed by the penumbras of the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. At that point, what is indeed a somewhat radical interpretation of the Constitution might look rather matter-of-fact.
Marriage rights advocates have their heart in the right place, but they (we) all have to be patient. As Dr. King once said, “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It’s only a matter of time until the map looks like this:

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