ACSblog symposium on Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor

  • April 4, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Holning Lau, Associate Professor of Law, University of North Carolina School of Law

    In my home state of North Carolina -- the most recent and probably last state to amend its constitution to ban same-sex marriage -- I have been fielding lots of questions from local couples wondering what impact, if any, the Supreme Court’s pending marriage cases will have here. The cases arose in California and New York. How might litigation that started so far away change things in our neck of the woods?

    The cases before the Supreme Court -- Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor -- are unlikely to have any immediate legal impact on same-sex couples in places like North Carolina. With that said, the cases can accelerate change in our part of the country, and they have already given us a lot to celebrate. In this post, I will use North Carolina as an example to elaborate on these points, but my underlying analysis can be applied to any one of the many states that currently, like North Carolina, offer no legal recognition to same-sex relationships.

    Immediate legal impact

    Let’s start with why the two cases probably won’t directly or immediately affect legal rights in North Carolina. Hollingsworth is the case about Prop 8, the ballot measure banning same-sex marriage in California. The case concerns whether a state can deny same-sex couples the right to marry. The Court could take Hollingsworth as an opportunity to declare that no state, including North Carolina, is permitted to deprive same-sex couples of that right. Indeed, I helped to prepare an amicus brief that supports that conclusion and I certainly welcome it. Conventional wisdom, however, is that the Court won’t make such a bold move. Some supporters of marriage equality counsel against a bold move, fearing the backlash that it would foment.

    Based on last week’s oral arguments, I suspect most of the justices are struggling to choose between dismissing the case on procedural grounds and striking down Prop 8 in a way that minimizes spillover effects to other states. I doubt that a majority of the justices will vote to uphold Prop 8.

    Dismissing the case on procedural grounds (discussed more fully here) would allow the Court to avoid having to either strike down or uphold Prop 8. It would simply be saying that, for technical reasons, the case is not properly before the Supreme Court. If the Court adopts this reasoning, Prop 8 would be unconstitutional because the California couples prevailed in lower court. However, because the Supreme Court itself would not be saying anything about same-sex marriage, states beyond California would remain unaffected.

  • March 29, 2013

    by Caroline Fredrickson, ACS President. This piece is cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

    It has to do with "our dignity," being able to be who we are openly. That's what Edith S. Windsor the woman challenging the cramped definition of marriage embedded in the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) said in a documentary about her longtime relationship with Thea Spyer. The two were married in Canada, a country that does not exclude lesbians and gay men from marriage, after more than 40 years together and not long before Spyer died of complications related to multiple sclerosis.

    The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case lodged by Windsor and in another case challenging California's ant-gay law, Proposition 8, which stripped lesbians and gay men of the right to wed in that state. It's difficult to predict how the Court will rule based solely on oral argument. But a consensus is building among many court-watchers that the justices appeared likely to move only incrementally on marriage equality.

    In the Prop 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, the justices dwelled heavily on a threshold question - is a handful of Prop 8 proponents the right group to defend the law before the Court. If the justices toss the case on procedural grounds, it likely means that lesbians and gay men can resume obtaining marriage licenses in that state, but would have no effect elsewhere. In the DOMA case, U.S. v. Windsor, the justices also focused heavily on standing, but when they turned to the substance of the case - a constitutional challenge to the federal government's narrow definition of marriage - several of the justices seemed far more concerned about the law's impact on federalism than on equal protection. Thus a majority of justices may be ready to invalidate DOMA's central provision, but on very narrow grounds. So in both cases the Court could provide very little progress on a core question - should laws that classify lesbians and gay men for unequal treatment be subjected to a much tougher constitutional test?

    Supporters of marriage equality in both cases urged the justices to find that laws targeting gay men and lesbians should be subjected to a heightened scrutiny when challenged in court. In other words, the government would have to show a compelling interest in enforcing a discriminatory law - a very difficult test to meet. The high court, however, can avoid that declaration and questioning during oral argument in both cases suggested that may be what occurs. On marriage alone, however, it is unlikely - regardless of how the Court rules -- that the robust movement for marriage equality will stall. These cases have made the question over marriage an easier one for many Americans to answer.

  • March 29, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Erin Ryan, Associate Professor of Law, Northwestern School of Law, Lewis & Clark College. Professor Ryan is the author of Federalism and the Tug of War Within. For more on the cases raising marriage equality concerns see the ACSblog symposium on Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor.

    A federalism scholar explains why federalism isn't the issue in Hollingsworth and Windsor.

    Federalism is once again at the forefront of the Supreme Court’s most contentious cases this Term. The cases attracting most attention are the two same-sex marriage cases that were argued this week. Facing intense public sentiment on both sides of the issue and the difficult questions they raise about the boundary between state and federal authority, some justices openly questioned whether they should just defer to the political process. And while this is often a wise prudential approach in review of contested federalism-sensitive policymaking, it’s exactly the wrong course of action when the matter at hand is an individual right.

    While both cases raise curious issues of standing, the substantive issue at the heart of each case is whether same-sex couples should be able to marry. Hollingsworth v. Perry asks the Court to review the constitutionality of a California’s “Prop 8,” a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriages within the state. United States v. Windsor tests the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal law that prevents the U.S. government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states that allow it (and affecting the administration of some 1,100 federal benefits connected with marriage). 

    Yet the looming question for the Supreme Court is not just whether gays and lesbians have the right to marry -- the justices must also confront the question of who should decide whether same-sex couples can marry. Is this something that states should be able to decide for themselves, by making and interpreting state law? (After all, matters of family law have traditionally been left to state regulation.) Or, is the decision to marry so fundamentally important that it triggers the federal Constitution’s promise that all citizens will be treated equally under the law? (After all, even though family law is traditionally left to the states, the Constitution won’t allow them to deny interracial marriages.)

  • March 27, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Proposition 8 case, the U.S. Supreme Court justices in today’s consideration of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act dwelled on jurisdictional questions, before discussing the core constitutional concerns.

    But a reading of the oral argument transcript in U.S. v. Windsor suggests a majority of justices may be ready to invalidate DOMA, but on narrow grounds, and likely not with a declaration that laws classifying lesbians and gay men for unequal treatment should be subjected to heightened scrutiny. Instead if the justices strike DOMA – and SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston suggests that may be what happens – it likely will be on federalism grounds – that is the law encroaches on the states’ rights to regulate marriage.  

    ACS President Caroline Fredrickson in a statement following oral argument said, “The federal government has a duty to protect Constitutional principles and values. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act, however, is an egregious affront to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. DOMA walls off lesbians and gay men from more than 1,000 federal government benefits, protections and rights. There is no rational reason for this law. The Supreme Court should reject it and establish a more rigorous test for similar laws.”

    Before moving to the core of the case – a constitutional challenge to DOMA – several of the justices pelted lawyers with questions about whether the case should even be before the justices. (The Obama administration has stopped defending DOMA, calling it unconstitutional. But when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled last year that DOMA’s cramped definition of marriage was unconstitutional, the administration appealed the opinion to the Supreme Court, where it argued against the law.) During oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. took a shot at the administration’s handling of the case, saying that if the president thinks the law is unconstitutional then why doesn’t he “have the courage of his convictions" and not enforce the law, instead of saying, "'Oh, we'll wait till the Supreme Court tells us we have no choice.'"

    After getting through the mind-numbing back-and-forth on standing questions, the justices turned to the constitutionality of DOMA, and it appeared that a majority was leaning toward killing it. Lawyers representing Edith S. Windsor the woman challenging DOMA, argued in their merits brief before the Supreme Court that laws like DOMA, which target lesbians and gay men for unequal treatment when challenged should be subjected to a heightened scrutiny. “This Court should apply heightened scrutiny to DOMA because it discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation,” the brief states. “Under heightened scrutiny, the federal government must at the very least show that the classification is ‘substantially related to the achievement of [important government objectives].’”

     

  • March 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Even before today’s oral argument in Hollingsworth v. Perry, some pundits urged the Supreme Court to go slow on same-sex marriage, essentially arguing marriage should be for the states to hash out and declaring that a Supreme Court decision that all states must recognize same-sex marriage could result in a backlash, thereby setting back efforts to advance equality for the LGBT community.

    After reading the oral argument transcript, it seems that may be what happens since it did not appear a majority of justices were anywhere close to declaring that gay couples have a constitutional right to wed. That’s disconcerting since national polls and polls in California, birth of Proposition 8, reveal strong support for same-sex marriage. That’s not terribly surprising since marriage is about committed couples taking responsibility for each other and why should government officials want to discourage such responsibility.

    Instead, the high court may be ready to dismiss the Prop 8 case on a technicality for it appeared that the high court’s left-of-center justices and possibly Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy were not convinced that a few proponents of California’s anti-gay law are the proper people to be before the court.

    Before Charles J. Cooper, attorney for the proponents of Prop 8, could delve into the substantive argument against same-sex marriage, he was asked by Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. to address the “standing issue.”

    Cooper said the proponents of Prop 8 “have standing to defend the measure before this Court as representatives of the people and the State of California to defend the validity of a measure that they brought forward.” (As noted in this interview with Columbia Law School Professor Suzanne Goldberg it is a bit odd for the Prop 8 proponents to insist they are representing the interests of the state of California, for the state’s governor and attorney general have both said the law should be invalidated as unconstitutional.)

    Justice Stephen Breyer pointed to a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger saying it made a “strong argument” that the Prop 8 proponents “are really no more than a group of five people who feel really strongly” that they should vindicate the law.

    The Dellinger brief, in part, argues that the proponents of Prop 8 have “noting more than a generalized interest in” enforcement of the law.  Citing high court precedent, the brief continues, that “the generalized interest a party shares with all members of the public in proper enforcement of the laws is not sufficient” to establish standing.

    Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the while the California Attorney General has “no personal interest” in defending Prop 8, she does have “a fiduciary obligation,” to which Cooper agreed.

    The standing question, as the Dellinger brief persuasively argues, could prove to be the winning argument, giving the Court a way to avoid tackling the substantive question of whether gay couples have a constitutional right to wed.

    The substantive argument from Cooper and many of the groups lodging friend-of-the-court briefs centered on an alleged overriding governmental interest in marriage as a tool primarily for promoting procreation.

    Cooper said that Prop 8 proponents are arguing that the States' interest in marraige is about promoting procreation. He told Justice Elena Kagan that the “essential thrust of our position” is that the states have a really strong interest in regulating procreation.

    Justice Stephen Breyer asked Cooper, “What precisely is the way in which allowing gay couples to marry would interfere with the vision of marriage as procreation of children that allowing sterile couples of different sexes to marry would not? I mean there are lots of people who get married who can’t have children.”