Same-Sex Marriage, Political Backlash and the Case for Going Slow

March 22, 2013
Guest Post

by Eric J. Segall, Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law. Professor Segall is author of Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court is not a Court and its Justices are not Judges. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor.

Progressives and liberals in favor of same sex marriage need to be careful what they wish for when the Court decides the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 cases later this term. It would be easy to argue that the Court should overturn DOMA and invalidate Proposition 8 on the grounds that governmental classifications based on sexual orientation require heightened scrutiny, and neither California nor the federal government can satisfy that standard. The problem with the Court imposing a national rule, however, may be a serious backlash against the decision resulting in long term pain for everyone on the left. The lessons of Roe v. Wade might be instructive.

In the years preceding Roe, there was a popular momentum flowing through the states to make the right to choose a bit easier but legislative efforts to secure the right were blocked by the efforts of a strong and well-funded Catholic minority. There is a similar momentum now (albeit only recently) on the issue of same-sex marriage. The Court’s decision in Roe, however, not only slowed the momentum but created a significant backlash though not in the traditional way most people think. In ground breaking work, Professors Reva Siegel and Linda Greenhouse have suggested that, when it comes to the right to choose, women truly are better off today than they would have been without Roe, and that the case for backlash after Roe is overstated. They may be right when it comes to the right to choose, but they did not purport to ask another related but equally important question. Although the backlash on abortion specifically may be overstated, the use of the Court’s decision in Roe by right wing groups on issues other than abortion has been a major problem for the left. The rise of the New Right in the 1970’s led by Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schaffly, the emergence of brash, young,  and conservative anti-choice republicans  and judges in the 1980’s, and the difficulty of confirming liberal judges in the Senate, can in significant part be traced to the criticism of the Court’s decision in Roe. As Cass Sunstein has argued, the rise of the Moral Majority was certainly assisted by opposition to Roe. Meanwhile, as far as the long-term effectiveness of Roe is concerned, not only does the case currently hang by the thread of Justice Kennedy’s robes, but in many states between the two coasts poor women still have an enormously difficult time securing safe, affordable abortions. This is not to say that the Court erred in Roe, but it is a fair question whether the backlash to the decision across a broad range of important issues was worth the somewhat limited abortion rights gained by the decision.

I would hope that people in favor of both same-sex marriage and equal rights for gays would recognize that the important question is not whether gays will be better off the day after the Court’s decisions but whether they will be better off in ten years. Right now over thirty states prohibit same sex marriage. At the time of Loving v. Virginia, the case in which the Court struck down bans on inter-racial marriage, less than 20 states forbid it, and there wasn’t much political debate on the subject.  If the Court issues a decision requiring all fifty states to recognize same sex marriage, it is quite possible that conservative groups will use the decision to raise money, elect representatives, block judges, and try to find ways to circumvent the decision. It should be remembered that nine years after Brown, there were virtually no desegregated public schools in the South, and forty years after Roe, there is only one abortion clinic in Mississippi. In many other states there are very few doctors willing to perform abortions. The lesson is that it is sometimes enormously difficult for the Supreme Court to force progressive change in the face of serious opposition.

There may be a better way. The Court could strike down DOMA under heightened scrutiny making it clear that government classifications based on sexual orientation receive heightened scrutiny. The Court could dismiss the Proposition 8 case on standing grounds (there are substantial standing arguments which the Court asked the parties to brief).  This combination would leave all state laws (except perhaps California’s) intact but subject to likely successful challenges. Obviously, this would be a slower and more expensive route to marriage equality, but it might make the right more secure over time while decreasing the chances of serious backlash.

I know that it is easy for a straight male like me to suggest that the Court should refrain from quickly and forcefully resolving the same sex marriage issue on a national basis.  But issues that some gays care deeply about are not limited to marriage equality, just like feminists face many challenges other than abortion such as equal pay, equality in the military, and glass ceiling barriers.  Where gender equality would be without Roe is unknowable but even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has observed that the right to choose today might be more secure if the Court hadn’t decided it “in one fell swoop.” I don’t know what will happen if the Court announces a national rule on same-sex marriage but history strongly suggests that a more incremental approach might better serve the long term interests of people who identify themselves as liberals and progressives, including gays and lesbians