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Friday, July 10, 2015

Marriage Equality a Fundamental Constitutional Right

SCOTUS Justices Roberts & Kennedy
Just prior to the Fourth of July holiday, on one of the last days of its term, the SCOTUS announced the split-decision in Obergefell v Hodges, a case from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, our appellate circuit, that also included the Michigan case of April DeBoer. In Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion, the right of same-sex couples to marry is treated as a fundamental right under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Readers of this blog are well familiar with the various marriage equality civil rights struggles that have played out in courts across the country over the past decade. But it was never a given that the High Court would pronounce such a sweeping endorsement of a now-fundamental right.

The right to marry the person of one's choice, whether that person be of another race or of the same gender, is perhaps one of the most important decisions we make in our lives. So it does follow that such a right, although not expressly stated in our constitution, is truly fundamental; our basic human experience makes it so.

The 5-4 marriage equality decision, authored by Justice Kennedy, was joined by all three female justices as well as Justice Steven Breyer. Each of the conservative justices authored scathing dissents with Justice John Roberts being the most analytic among the quartet.

The basic holding of the majority opinion is that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires all states to license a marriage between two persons of the same gender and to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

In reaching this conclusion, Justice Kennedy discussed how the institution of marriage has evolved since the Colonial era, marked by arranged marriages. He then cited to some of the landmark cases involving homosexuality such as Bowers v Hardwick [the 1986 case that upheld Georgia's criminalization of certain homosexual acts]; Lawrence v Texas [the 2003 decision overruling Bowers]; and of course, United States v Windsor [striking down as unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act which defined a marriage as solely between one man and one woman in the federal benefits context].

Justice Roberts' principal dissent makes the following points, as summarized by Cornell University Law Professor Michael C. Dorf:
(1) there is a difference between support for same-sex marriage as a policy matter and as a constitutional matter; (2) premature constitutionalization of a right that cannot yet be said to be deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions risks undermining long-term support for the right because defeat of the anti-same-sex-marriage position in the democratic process would be more acceptable; and (3) the majority’s logic opens the door to claims such as a right to polygamy. 
Voicing the true conservative disdain for an activist Court, Justice Roberts says that SCOTUS should not "seize for itself" a question that our Constitution leaves for the people to decide using the political machinery.  "Who do we [justices] think we are?", he asks.

While the SCOTUS does generally eschew significant constitutional pronouncements, it has a long-tradition of righting the wrongs of rogue state legislatures and an occasionally errant Congress. This is the essence of our check-and-balance system of federalist government.

Before news of the decision in Washington D.C. even hit the left coast, new issues involving same-sex partnerships were being conjured-up by legal scholars. Now that such couples have a constitutional right to marry, when they do so, can disputes involving employment and housing discrimination be far behind?  Also, where does this leave the so-called "religious preference" laws?

The nice thing about our ever-evolving common law system, from the lawyers' perspective, is that there is always another legal dispute just around the corner; the dust never really settles.

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July 30, 2015 at 3:56 AM 

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