marriage equality

  • June 26, 2013

    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.”

  • June 19, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In a final discussion about marriage equality at the 2013 ACS National Convention, Paul M. Smith, a longtime Supreme Court litigant, discussed why he thinks in the long run marriage equality will win the day across the country.

    Smith (pictured) successfully argued before the Supreme Court against a Texas sodomy law resulting in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas opinion. That opinion, among at least one other high court opinion, has helped advance equality for the LGBT community. The two cases before the Supreme Court – Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor center squarely on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. But in both cases the high court has ways to avoid going too far. In Perry, the case raising constitutional challenges to California’s Proposition 8 could be dismissed on standing grounds or it could be narrowly tailored to only affect that state. In Windsor, the justices could invalidate the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on federalism grounds and not address whether laws targeting LGBT persons for discriminatory treatment subvert the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

    Smith, a longtime proponent of equality, talked with me about why he thinks it may be appropriate for the high court to avoid a finding that would require all states to recognize same-sex marriages.

    Regarding Windsor, the case involving DOMA, Smith said his “expectation is that the Court will probably reach the merits in the DOMA case and hold it unconstitutional. It’s possible though that they there may not be five votes to hold it unconstitutional under the equal protection clause. Instead Justice Kennedy seemed to be interested more in federalism arguments. My own view about that is -- that would be fine. If the law goes away, the law goes away and a whole lot of happy couples will be able to be treated as fully married by their own federal government. And that would be huge progress.”

    He continued, “In terms of Perry, if I were a justice I would probably not decide all 50 states have to marry same-sex couples this year. The change that is happening in public opinion is so dramatic, the political changes that are sweeping the country are so dramatic that I think the Court is a part of that process; it played a great role in getting it started with the Lawrence decision and others. But they have ways of being a part of it without taking it all the way to the finish line. And I think they would prefer to do it that way, and I don’t tend to disagree with them. I know that many younger people who would think that is crazy; that there is no reason why the Court shouldn’t do what’s right, right now. And I certainly think that the right answer in the long run will be that there should be marriage equality mandated by the federal Constitution.”

    Smith and Mary Bonauto, of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), provide more detail on federalism and marriage equality in this guest post. Watch the brief interview with Smith below or visit here.

  • June 19, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    If the U.S. Supreme Court avoids a sweeping opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Proposition 8 case, Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor Steve Sanders says he hopes civil rights groups will focus on protecting the rights of the thousands of legally married same-sex couples.

    During the 2013 ACS Convention, Sanders (pictured) spoke with me about Hollingsworth and U.S. v. Windsor, the case including constitutional challenges to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

    “It really did seem like the justices, both the conservatives and the liberals, were reaching for a way to avoid having to take on the central issues in those cases -- what do the equal protection clause and the due process clauses mean for gays and lesbians, what do they mean for marriage equality, Sanders said. “This many years after Loving v. Virginia, why are we still groping around in the dark as to what the contours are of the fundamental right to marry as provided in the Constitution.”

    He continued, “Assuming that the Court does not settle the meaning of marriage – same-sex marriage – for the entire country, assuming the Court doesn’t give us a substantive understanding of the meaning of equal protection or due process for same-sex couples in these cases, I have some thoughts about what the next wave of marriage equality litigation should look like.”

    Sanders says there are two components to marriage equality – the right of same-sex couples to wed and the right to stay married. There are already thousands of legally married same-sex couples and many of them move to other states, of which more than 30 ban same-sex marriage thereby voiding those marriages. “I think that’s a problem, I think that’s even more offensive than being prohibited from marrying the person you love. Those people have acquired vested rights and expectation interests in the ongoing nature of their marriages.”

    Sanders believes that once married those same-sex couples acquire a “liberty interest in the ongoing existence of that marriage that the state can’t take away. And if a state asserts interests in privileging heterosexual marriage those interests have to be weighed against the interests of a couple that is having something real and tangible taken away from them,” he said.

    That’s a problem, which Sanders says the national civil liberties and gay rights groups should address. Watch the full interview below or visit this link.

  • June 18, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue opinions in two cases involving questions of marriage equality, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera talked with me about his office’s role in challenging discriminatory laws in California that resulted in the federal constitutional challenge to the state’s Proposition 8.

    In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the high court is considering constitutional challenges to Proposition 8, which bars California from recognizing same-sex marriages. The justices could avoid the constitutional questions if it were to dismiss the case on procedural grounds.

    Herrera (pictured) during the 2013 ACS National Convention discussed why the San Francisco Attorney’s Office so aggressively challenged the state’s laws discriminating against lesbians and gay men and why he does not favor an incremental approach to securing marriage equality.

    In the interview Herrera explains how his office helped spark the legal battle that eventually put Proposition 8 before the high court.

    “It has been an honor and privilege for our office to have been involved in what is the civil rights issue of our time,” Herrera said. “And we like to think that our involvement at least played some role in really moving the debate and contributing to the tremendous progress that we have seen, with incredible rapidity over the course of the last several years on the issue of marriage equality.”

    When asked whether the Supreme Court should avoid an opinion that would make all state bans on same-sex marriage constitutionally suspect, Herrera strongly supported an approach that would more quickly lead to marriage equality from coast to coast.

    “I do not think we should be in the position of abiding discrimination,” he said. “And I think we’ve been quite clear that we think everybody is entitled to equal protection under the law irrespective of sexual orientation.”  

    Herrera continued, “It’s about being on the right side of history, it’s about making sure that everybody is entitled to equal protection under the law. And I think that while there’s a political process going on it was a direct result of strong legal arguments and views that were made known. So I’m not one who, at least at this point, thinks that an incremental approach is something we need to follow. I think it’s time we deal with this issue once and for all.”

    Watch entire interview below or visit this link.

  • June 13, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

    June is every Supreme Court watcher's favorite time of year. There are always several important, potentially landmark, rulings to be handed down. This year, there are four major cases sure to make headlines: Fisher v. University of Texas on the constitutionality of race-based admission preferences; Shelby County v. Holder on the continued viability of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act; U.S. v. Windsor on the Defense of Marriage Act; and Hollingsworth v. Perry on California's ban on same-sex marriage. While no one knows exactly how the Court will rule on these controversies -- and last term's Obamacare decision reminds us that surprises are always possible -- there seems to be a good chance they will follow a distinctive pattern.

    The conservative justices will be bold and assertive, while the liberal justices will be hesitant and incremental.

    Instead of constrained, the conservative justices appear ready to declare an end to a half-century of law providing benefits for racial minorities who've suffered a long history of discrimination. In the Voting Rights Act case, the five most conservative justices on the Court -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito -- signaled their willingness to strike down or effectively nullify one of the most important and effective civil rights laws ever enacted. While other parts of the Voting Rights Act will remain intact, voiding Section 5, which requires pre-clearance of changes to voting rules by jurisdictions with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting, will be a severe blow to civil rights. Section 5 is a valuable prophylactic rule that does far more to prevent discrimination than the VRA's other central provision, Section 2, which directly outlaws discriminatory voting practices. Section 2 is an ex-post remedy and requires the challenger to satisfy a difficult burden of proof to win. Section 5 stopped the discrimination before it could occur. While the conservative wing of the Court may stop short of invalidating Section 5 entirely, they might just declare unconstitutional the formula used to determine which jurisdictions are covered. That would seem to be a narrow, incremental ruling but it would have the same practical result as invalidating Section 5. Given the growingly fierce GOP opposition to Section 5 and the general inability of Congress to pass anything of significance, there's almost no chance Congress will adopt a new formula.  Section 5 might remain "on the books" but it would be essentially a dead-letter.