I was going to provide an analysis of both of the Supreme Court decisions today related to gay marriage, but instead I will focus on Hollingsworth v. Perry, which was concerned with California’s Prop 8. But first a couple of thoughts about US v. Windsor, the DOMA case. The immediate short-term impact of the case is somewhat limited in scope. Federal benefits will be conferred upon same-sex couples who live in states that recognize their partnership as marriage. The long-term impact, however, is much starker, as will be explained in a moment.
Both Justices Alito and Scalia provide blistering dissents, and they should be read in full. They disagree on a technical though not insignificant point about the standing of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, or BLAG (and for the record, I tend to side with Alito). First of all, Scalia properly notes that, despite the rhetoric in Kennedy’s opinion, this was not a federalism case, or at least the case was not decided on federalism grounds. In fact, contrary to exhortations of some so-called libertarians on twitter, this case has the ultimate effect of further eroding states’ rights regarding same-sex marriage. Had this case been decided on federalism (10th amendment) grounds, then the outcome would have been possibly justifiable. But the majority’s reliance on 5th and 14th amendment concerns – effectively relying on the absurd legal doctrine of substantive due process – runs completely counter to the federalism argument, and paves the way for future challenges to state laws that prohibit same-sex marriage.
Justice Scalia recognizes this farce for what it is, and reminds the public of the exchange between these two very same Justices ten years ago to the date in Lawrence v. Texas. Then Justice Kennedy assured us all that striking down anti-sodomy laws would not eventually be used as a rationale for upending traditional marriage, and Scalia scoffed at him in the dissent. Well, guess who’s looking prophetic now. Even left-wing pundit David Corn (gleefully, this case) acknowledges Scalia’s prescience. Kennedy, backed up by the obtuse Chief Justice, assures us that nothing in this decision interferes with state decision-making on marriage. Once again Scalia scoffs, and, sadly, at some point in the future he will no doubt be proven right.
As for the Prop 8 case: my what a tangled web. I have been defending Chief Justice Roberts’s decision (joined, I may remind you, by Antonin Scalia along with three of the Court’s leftists) on the grounds that had the case been decided on the merits, it is quite possible that the same 5-4 majority in Windsor would have held Prop 8 to be unconstitutional, and this would have been the Roe v. Wade of gay marriage. Now, I’m not so sure.
Admittedly, I am somewhat conflicted on the ruling on standing. The majority concludes that the petitioners did not have standing because they were not official delegates of the state, and they did not experience any harm due to the appellate court’s ruling decreeing Prop 8 to be unconstitutional. From a certain point of view, this is a perfectly acceptable legal holding. Scalia made a very good case in his Windsor dissent for a blanket denial of standing to all non-state petitioners in such cases. Scalia is acting fairly consistently, thus that explains why he voted with the majority here.
That said, the Chief Justice’s opinion is very worrisome, and not just from the standpoint of traditional marriage. As Justice Kennedy (!) explained in his dissent (joined in totality by Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor), the petitioners here do, in effect, represent the state. In fact the state constitution all but says that when it comes to ballot initiatives, ordinary citizens are agents of the state. I would go a step further and suggest that Roberts offers up a very constrained view of who the state is. According to his logic, the “state” is nothing more than the Chief Executive and the bureaucracy. From a technical legal standpoint this is fine, but the very point of a ballot initiative is to bypass state officials whom the citizenry at large have decided are not acting in their best interests. I have written before about my concerns (to put it mildly) regarding ballot initiatives, but it is illogical to deny that the ballot initiative process changes the normal dynamics of who has legal standing.
The Chief suggests on page 8 of his opinion that once the proposition was approved and enacted, that petitioners no longer had a role in enactment. But if the executive branch of the government refuses to defend the amendment or statute, that leaves the citizens with no legal recourse.
The petitioners relied on the case of Karcher v. May to argue that they indeed had standing, but Chief Roberts denied that the the ruling there was applicable.
Far from supporting petitioners’ standing, however, Karcher is compelling precedent against it. The legislators in that case intervened in their official capacities as Speaker and President of the legislature. No one doubts that a State has a cognizable interest “in the continued enforceability” of its laws that is harmed by a judicial decision declaring a state law unconstitutional. Maine v. Taylor, 477 U. S. 131, 137 (1986). To vindicate that interest or any other, a State must be able to designate agents to represent it in federal court.
But in a case revolving around a ballot initiative, haven’t the voters themselves become, in essence, the equivalent of legislators?
Roberts’s reticence to grant standing in this case is understandable, and I can see why Scalia would join the majority. In his Windsor defense, Scalia admirably rails against the idea of an omnipotent judiciary that decrees on all constitutional issues just because it wants to. An overly broad interpretation of who has standing empowers the judiciary. But I think this is a rare case in which judicial deference actually damages the workings of the republican process. For good or ill, Californians have favored a much more directly democratic system, and the Court’s majority fails to factor that into its decision-making. By denying standing to the petitioners, the Court has said that citizens have no real redress should state executives defy their expressed wishes.
Which leads me back to my uncertainty over the rationale over the votes cast in these two cases. I’m in the odd position where I disagree with the person who I think has the cleaner motive, but agree with the person whose motives are perhaps suspect. I have no doubt that if this case had been decided on the merits, Chief Justice Roberts would have voted to uphold Prop 8, while I’m not so certain about Kennedy. Scalia acted consistently with his overall principles, as did Alito (who would have granted standing to BLAG). Thomas offered no opinion in either case, but I suspect his reasoning would be similar to that of Alito, and so he acted consistently on the standing question as did, quite frankly, Sonia Sotomayor. As for the Court’s three other left-wingers – well, they did what they always did and just voted for the right (in their minds) outcome, reasoning be damned.
No matter the rationale for Roberts’s decision, it has ill portents. If Roberts acted strategically, then he abdicated his responsibility to be an impartial arbiter of the law. If he acted earnestly, well, he was simply wrong. More importantly, we’re stuck in a situation where the actual wishes of a democratic majority are trivial concerns compared to the desires of a handful of unelected judges. No matter how they voted today, this is simply untenable, and there is no end to this judicial tyranny in sight.