I had the privilege of attending Tuesday’s oral arguments at the Supreme Court involving gay marriage. Eventho I got to the Court more than 3 hours before the arguments began a little after 10 a.m., I was number 83 in the bar line and had to listen to the arguments from the attorney’s lounge. Four cases have been consolidated and are collectively go by Obergefell v. Hodges.
The arguments by the states’ attorney—John J. Bursch—were terrible. Perhaps his misfortune was the result of the states not having a rationale (i.e., valid) justification for denying same sex couples the right to marry and he was forced pick a lame excuse out of a bag.
What was the “rationale” Bursch offered as a justification for denying gays the right to marry? He argued that the states have a right to limit marriage to heterosexual couples because the primary purpose of marriage is to ensure that children grow up with their biological parents! Of course, if that was real reason, then states presumably could deny marriage licenses to any man-woman couple who do not intend to have children or could not have children because of infertility. Could a state annul marriages which don’t produce offspring in 3, 5 or 10 years? I suppose the argument could also support outlawing divorce (even in domestic violence situations) because, in the states’ view, the best interests of the child is to keep the child with his or her biological parents. And adoptions? Forget them. Any exceptions? (Gee, your Honors, please ask another question.) Thus, the states one-man, one-woman “class” was over inclusive.
Bursch conceded that a same sex couple could provide a child with a nurturing home environment. Isn’t that the primary consideration for the best interests of the child? In fact, Bursch failed to provide any evidence that a gay parents were inferior to straight couples in meeting the needs of their children. So I felt the state’s case was a big ZERO. On a positive note, Bursch didn’t argue that the 14th Amendment—which was adopted during the Reconstruction period in 1868—only applied to discrimination based on race.
Justice Kennedy, who is widely believed to be the swing vote, raised the “tradition” card—that marriage has been defined as being between a man and a woman for over a millennia. Sounds a lot like Newton’s First Theory of Motion: an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an external force. In other words, it’s permissible to ignore the rights of gays because we have denied them their rights for a very long time. That’s a sham legal purpose if I ever saw one. Indeed, nowhere in the Constitution does it say that tradition trumps due process. The good news is that the Kennedy recovered later in the argument—perhaps remembering that he wrote the majority opinion supporting the rights of gays in United States v. Windsor (2013) (holding DOMA unconstitutional), Lawrence v. Texas (2003) (holding Texas’s anti-sodomy statute unconstitutional) and Romer v. Evans (1996) (invalidated Colorado’s Amendment 2 targeting homosexuals). Bottom line, count Kennedy in on holding state laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman.
I was particularly disappointed that Solicitor General Donald B. Verrelli, Jr., didn’t argue that the right of gays to marry is a “fundamental” right. It would have been an easy argument to make, inasmuch as, the Supreme Court has held fourteen times since 1888 that marriage is a fundamental right. (For a list of the cases, visit http://www.afer.org/blog/14-supreme-court-cases-marriage-is-a-fundamental-right/.) (I suspect that Verrrelli was trying to tone down the government’s position in an attempt to make the case for gay marriage more palatable for justices sitting on the fence.) Instead, the United States took the position that gays have a right to marry under the Equal Protection Clause—which is reviewed under the lower standard rational basis test. While the outcome in this instance may ultimately be the same, I believe that Verrelli cheapened gay rights by not arguing both. I would note, for example, that the Court in Loving v. Virginia (1967) held that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment.
I anticipate that the Court in late June will avoid the fundamental right issue and rule narrowly that denial of marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples violates the Equal Protection Clause. However, I also anticipate that one or more justices will write a concurring opinion voicing the fundamental right position. Less clear is whether Chief Justice Roberts will join Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan—particularly if he wants to leave a legacy as being an eminent chief justice supporting the core American value of equality.