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  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Follow her on Twitter @Sifill_LDF.

    Yesterday, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether states can exclude gays and lesbians from the benefits of marriage, the crisis in Baltimore flooded the airwaves and brought renewed attention to long-simmering issues of racial justice. While the two issues might seem worlds apart, the often-overlooked truth is that both come down to the fundamental question of whether we as a nation take seriously the responsibility to confer equal dignity upon every citizen.

    It is Justice Anthony Kennedy who has elevated the principle of human dignity in a series of rulings. In a 2003 decision that decriminalized “homosexual conduct,” Justice Kennedy stressed that adults must “retain their dignity as free persons.” When the Court eliminated the death penalty for children, a majority led by Kennedy explained that the U.S. Constitution “reaffirms the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all persons.”  In a 2013 decision striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, Kennedy’s opinion emphasized the principle that gays and lesbians “occupy the same status and dignity” as heterosexuals.  Yesterday, at oral argument, Kennedy again raised this concern, stressing that the whole purpose of marriage is “enhancing the dignity of both the parties.”

    Yet it is not only Justice Kennedy.  In 1954, the Court in Brown v. Board unanimously struck down segregation in schools, precisely because it engendered a “feeling of inferiority as to [students’] status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”  In upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Court stressed “the personal dignity” of individuals who seek to access public accommodations on an equal basis.

    Most relevant to marriage equality, dignity has animated the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and its litigation dating back to the 1960s case of Loving v. Virginia.  Loving involved a married, interracial couple who were dragged out of bed by police in the middle of the night, hauled to jail, and eventually exiled from the state for 25 years in return for a suspended one-year jail term.  Not coincidentally, Virginia charged the Lovings with violating “dignity of the Commonwealth.”  LDF argued that this was unconstitutional and violated the fundamental right to marry and the justices unanimously agreed.  Building upon Loving, LDF filed a brief last month in the Supreme Court underscoring that “all persons yearn and deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect, both individually and as married couples.”

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law, Distinguished Professor of Law, and the Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    Nothing in the almost two and a half hours of oral arguments altered my prediction that at the end of June 2015 the Supreme Court will hold that state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage deny equal protection to gays and lesbians. The only question is whether it will be 5-4 or 6-3 to declare unconstitutional laws prohibiting marriage equality and whether the opinion will be written by Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    Why the certainty of this prediction? To begin with, the states that are defending their bans on same-sex marriage – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee –failed to articulate any legitimate justification for their laws. In reality, the laws prohibiting same-sex marriage stem from a moral condemnation of homosexuality, but the Supreme Court has been explicit that it will not accept such a justification for laws discriminating against gays and lesbians.

    So the states are trying to defend their laws by stressing tradition and the historic definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. But a tradition of discrimination is not an acceptable reason in the courts for continuing to discriminate. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a state law that prohibited interracial marriage. Such laws had existed throughout American history, even in California until the 1940s. But the Court rightly gave no deference to this tradition and rejected the argument that the definition of marriage should be left to the political process.

    The primary argument made by the states is that marriage is linked to procreation and that only opposite sex couples can procreate without artificial assistance. Michigan, for example, declares in its brief:   “Separating marriage from procreation dramatically changes the state’s interest in the institution. . . .  It is the state’s interest to encourage opposite-sex couples to enter into a permanent, exclusive union within which to have and raise children that motivates state marriage laws.”

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack School of Education & Social Policy; 27-year veteran of Boston Police Department

    Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the “bad old days” of policing, we called them “screen tests” in the Boston police department—slamming the vehicle brakes suddenly to force a handcuffed prisoner’s head into the Plexiglas (or screen) barrier that separated the rear prisoner transport area from the front of the police vehicle.  Prisoners who flunked the “attitude test” were often administered these “screen tests.”  Apparently the equivalent referent in Baltimore is “rough ride” and in Philadelphia the “nickel ride.”  It appears as though Freddie Gray may have been subjected to a Baltimore PD “rough ride” that led to his spine being severed and to his subsequent death on April 19.

    After years of settling excessive force lawsuits against the police in Boston that resulted in significant payouts in tax dollars to plaintiffs, the Boston police department in the late 1980s and early 1990s instituted a training regimen that emphasized constitutional protections and respect for civil rights and civil liberties.  Even more importantly, police administrators conveyed the severity with which they took allegations of excessive force and police brutality in imposing unprecedented sanctions against officers found to have engaged in such practices.  Officers received suspensions without pay for months at a time; some were terminated and even sent to federal prison.  The message went out to officers in the Boston police department: Engage in excessive force practices and brutality at tangible risk to your career, your future and maybe even your liberty.  So-called “screen tests” became largely a relic of the past.

    The message apparently never made it to Baltimore (or New York City, or Cleveland, or North Charleston, or Albuquerque or Ferguson).  Although the Boston police have had their share of excessive force allegations in recent years, strict accountability and a robust disciplinary process have seen the sustention of excessive force allegations sharply curtailed.

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Janson Wu, Executive Director, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). Wu is a recipient of ACS's David Carliner Public Interest Award.

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    On April 28, I sat in the U.S. Supreme Court to watch Mary Bonauto argue for the freedom to marry for all same-sex couples across our nation.  Her opening argument rang as true today as 12 years ago, when Mary won the Goodridge case, making Massachusetts the first marriage equality state:

    "The intimate and committed relationships of same-sex couples, just like those of heterosexual couples, provide mutual support and are the foundation of family life in our society. If a legal commitment, responsible and protection that is marriage is off limits to gay people as a claim, the stain of unworthiness that follows on individuals and families contravenes the basic constitutional commitment to equal dignity.”

    As the Executive Director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) where Mary has worked for 25 years, I was proud to witness Mary stand in front of the nine justices to argue for the equal dignity and humanity of LGBT people.  Over the course of the argument, which included passionate and articulate performances by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Doug Hallward-Driemeier (who argued the question of recognition of out-of-state marriages), the debate over our equal worth as citizens and as people never felt more substantial.

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Suzanne B. Goldberg, Executive Vice President for University Life, Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law, and Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, Columbia Law School

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    It was cold but clear yesterday morning just after dawn outside the Supreme Court.  If you have seen any of the photos circulating in social media, you can feel the optimistic mood of nearly everyone there – from the cheery, dark-suited lawyers on the Supreme Court bar line to those on the line designated for the general public, some of whom had traveled across the country and slept out for several nights, with rainbow flags aloft, waiting for this morning to arrive.

    Both lines wound from in front of the sunrise-reflected courthouse to a point well around the corner, hundreds of people in all.  Also in the mix were loads of media – more than at any previous gay rights argument that I can remember, with reporters standing tall so they could be filmed with the Court as backdrop as they explained to the nation what is at issue in the marriage cases about to be argued.

    It was hugs aplenty among old friends who have worked together for so many years on LGBT rights cases.  If totaled, the collective experience of movement lawyers, academics and law firm cooperating attorneys might have included as many years as the millennia some of the justices later invoked inside the courtroom when they talked about the lengthy history of “traditional” marriage.