Massachusetts v. Health and Human Services

  • October 29, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Steve Sanders, an appellate lawyer and adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School
    Thirteen states have filed an amicus brief in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will review a district court decision that struck down California's same-sex marriage ban. The brief-submitted by the attorneys general of Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming-argues that it is gravely important that states be allowed to continue privileging "traditional" marriage and denying equality to same-sex couples. One of the brief's lead counsel is Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli (pictured), a darling of social conservatives and the Tea Party movement.

    The brief purports to offer an argument about marriage federalism-that every state should be able to carry out its own ideas without interference either from Washington or pesky federal judges. But as I'll explain, these attorneys general -- call them the Cuccinelli 13 -- don't really believe their own argument. They just want their states to be able to keep discriminating against gays and lesbians.

    As you might expect from a group of mostly red states (11 of the 13 AGs are Republicans), the brief rehashes familiar social-conservative themes: marriage is about procreation; children are better off in heterosexual homes; it's a slippery slope from gay marriage to legalized polygamy and incest; the "traditional" understanding of marriage should be constitutionally dispositive.

    What's interesting, though, is that the brief frames these arguments within a sweeping claim that states have "sovereign primacy over marriage." "Primary state authority over family law," they write, "is confirmed by definite limitations on federal power" and is a "bedrock principle of federalism."

    Taking aim at the judge who invalidated California's Proposition 8, the Cuccinelli 13 insist that "federal judicial power threatens to undermine state determinations of marital or parental status," and that the district court's "fiat" (a silly characterization of a closely reasoned 136-page opinion) "exceeded its judicial authority." But this is an obtuse argument. The brief attempts to conflate the "domestic relations exception"-a judge-made abstention doctrine that deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over intrafamily disputes like divorce or child custody-with the power of federal courts to review the constitutionality of state laws. Faulty arguments aside, the Cuccinelli 13's real point is that if states want to keep discriminating against same-sex couples, federal courts just need to butt out; they have no right to question majoritarian ideas - what the AGs call "the acquired cultural wisdom of citizens" - about marriage.