by Jeremy Leaming
A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court found a way to come together to advance equality. It comes on the ten-year anniversary of the high court’s landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision that invalidated state anti-sodomy laws targeting gay people.
In U.S. v. Windsor, the majority led by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, concluded that the federal government’s refusal to recognize legally married same-sex couples is unconstitutional.
In a 5-4 opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the court dismissed on procedural grounds the challenge to court rulings that invalidated California's Proposition 8, meaning that couples in the Golden State can resume obtaining marriage licenses. The high court majority in Perry was made up of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Antonin Scalia and Kagan. The majority found that the supporters of Proposition 8, which yanked the right to marry from same-sex couples in California, did not have standing to challenge the law. As David Savage reports for the Los Angeles Times, state officials won’t defend the law, which they view as a violation of equal protection, so it essentially clears “the way … for same-sex marriages to resume in California.”
But both actions, however, follow the conservative majority’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act, and a ruling potentially limiting the use of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education. Moreover, the high court also issued opinions this week making it significantly more difficult for workers to sue employers over harassment allegations. So while today’s demise of DOMA is certainly news worthy of great celebration, it hardly changes the fact that the Roberts Court is bent on advancing a right-wing, pro-corporate agenda.
In the DOMA case the majority did not find that there is constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The majority opinion was narrow, striking a provision of DOMA that it saw as infringing on due process and equality promises of the federal government. Noting the states’ historic and “significant responsibilities” for defining marriage, Kennedy said DOMA “departs” from the tradition with its sweeping scope. Citing Romer v. Evans, Kennedy wrote that discriminations “‘of an usual character especially suggest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision.’” In this instance DOMA did not survive that type of scrutiny.
In this instance DOMA was denying the dignity of a same-sex marriage that had been recognized by the state of New York. The opinion authored by Kennedy included lofty language of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause and DOMA’s purpose to deprive an “unpopular group” of liberty. Not surprisingly Kennedy’s opinion provoked a sharp dissent from Justice Scalia, who joined yesterday’s majority opinion usurping Congress’ constitutional authority to enforce the promises of the 14th and 15th Amendments through “appropriate legislation.”
“DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect,” Kennedy wrote. “By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” Citing precedent, he continued, that the “Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot’ justify disparate treatment of that group.”