by Adam Winkler, Professor Law, UCLA School of Law. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.
In 1961, Yale Law School professor Alexander Bickel wrote a law review article extolling what he called the “passive virtues” of judicial decision-making. By this, Bickel meant that the Supreme Court might achieve better, more enduring results if instead of boldly asserting a constitutional vision the justices took small, narrow steps. He didn’t mean that the Court should stay away from controversial issues so much as lead the nation in a dialogue, venturing in on occasion to articulate important principles but allowing issues to percolate over time.
In an era where the Supreme Court is known for its aggressive assertions of power, most notoriously in deciding a presidential election in Bush v. Gore, it may be hard to take seriously any notion of a passive or tentative Court. In recent years, some liberal scholars such as Cass Sunstein have promoted judicial minimalism, though mostly one suspects because of the conservative makeup of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts. Yet if there is one area where the Court has seemed to follow Bickel’s lead, it is LGBT rights and, in particular, marriage equality.
Consider that the Court has ruled on the constitutionality of laws discriminating or harming LGBT people in three major cases over the past twenty years: Romer v. Evans, striking down Colorado’s statewide ban on local anti-discrimination ordinances; Lawrence v. Texas, voiding bans on same-sex sexual relationships; and United States v. Windsor, invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act. These cases have been celebrated for expanding the constitutional promise of equal citizenship to LGBT people. And the justices have been criticized, too, for not going far enough. Romer refused to say that sexual orientation was a suspect classification triggering heightened scrutiny. Lawrence refused even to say that same-sex sexual activity was a fundamental right. Windsor was decided the same day as Hollingsworth v. Perry, where the Court used procedural issues to avoid ruling directly on the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage.
Such criticism is certainly appropriate given that the Court’s half-steps leave LGBT people in limbo. After Romer and Lawrence, federal courts continued to uphold other laws discriminating against LGBT people, such as bans on adoption. Windsor and Hollingsworth literally left LGBT people in loving relationships at the altar, still unable to marry in the majority of states. This state of affairs must be changed and soon. For many, rights delayed are rights denied.