Tag Archives: Proposition 8

Prognosticating and the Supremes

As any lawyer will attest, predicting the outcome of Supreme Court cases is foolhardy in the extreme. But I’ve never let the prospect of making a fool of myself stop me, so I’m going to go out on a limb and do just that.

Yesterday, as practically everyone within earshot of a news report knows, the Court heard the first of two important cases on marriage equality. Yesterday’s arguments dealt with the appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision striking down California’s Proposition Eight; today’s will center on the constitutionality of DOMA, the “Defense of Marriage” Act.

I expect the Court to strike down DOMA, which–among other things–allows the federal government to treat marriages recognized by different states differently. Throughout our history, laws governing marriage have been the province of state governments. DOMA allows the federal government to treat legally married citizens from some states very differently than legally married citizens from other states. I expect the Court to follow its own ample precedents on federalism and equal protection; I’m pretty confident DOMA will fall.

That said, the betting in legal quarters on Proposition 8 has always favored a Court cop-out.

When the Justices asked for briefing on the issue of standing, most lawyers following the case saw that as a signal that they were looking for a way to dispose of the case on procedural grounds, that they were looking for a way to avoid ruling on the merits of the question whether marriage–which the Court has repeatedly ruled is a “fundamental right”–must be made available to gay citizens as well as straight ones.

As disappointing as it would be to have the Court sidestep that question, a decision to the effect that only the Governor and Attorney General of California had standing to appeal the judgment (or a ruling that review had been “improvidently granted”) would have the effect of reinstating the lower court’s decision. Although such a decision would affect only California, that state has some 11% of the population of the U.S. The number of citizens living in states with marriage equality would grow dramatically, adding to the pressures that are already mounting elsewhere.

As numerous observers have noted, in the absolute worst-case scenario, the Court’s decisions in these cases can only slow the inevitable. Same-sex marriage will be a national reality within the next few years, with or without the Court’s assistance. A decision containing a ringing affirmation of equality would be lovely, but its absence will not alter the eventual result.

So there you have my predictions. I hope I’m wrong about Proposition 8, but given the questions thrown at the litigants during yesterday’s arguments, I doubt it.

At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Marrying Kind

Here’s a quick quiz. Who said this?

“Legalizing same-sex marriage would also be a recognition of basic American principles, and would represent the culmination of our nation’s commitment to equal rights. It is, some have said, the last major civil-rights milestone yet to be surpassed in our two-century struggle to attain the goals we set for this nation at its formation.”

If you guessed this was part of a press release from HRC or Lambda, or a statement by a Democratic Congressman from a really safe district, you’d be wrong. This was from a recent Newsweek  column penned by none other than Theodore Olsen, the very conservative former Solicitor General who was also the lead lawyer representing George W. Bush before the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.

As readers of this column undoubtedly know, Olsen has teamed with his erstwhile opponent in that lawsuit, David Boies, to challenge the constitutionality of Proposition 8.

When these two formed their unlikely team and announced their decision to challenge the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage, I’ll admit I was torn.

On the one hand, these are two of the pre-eminent lawyers in the country—not only can we have confidence that the legal and constitutional arguments will be made forcefully, thoroughly and competently, but there is tremendous value in the symbolism of having such established (and establishment), highly respected legal figures as proponents of equality for same-sex couples. On the other hand, this is a case that is intended to go all the way to the Supreme Court, where victory will be anything but assured and defeat would set back the cause of gay rights for a generation.  Even a victory in the Supreme Court would undoubtedly bring backlash, and the predictable howls of the right-wing fringe about “imperial” courts and “unelected judges.”

So I was wary.

But the more I think about it, the less worried I am. First of all, as I have documented in past columns in these pages, the pace at which the culture is changing is breathtaking. It takes a long time for a case to work its way up to the Supreme Court—time during which those changes will continue, and the idea of same-sex marriage will seem less and less remarkable. Already, the popular culture is discounting the arguments against such marriages, particularly the allegation that permitting same-sex marriage will somehow harm “traditional” unions. As Olsen wrote,

“Another argument, vaguer and even less persuasive, is that gay marriage somehow does harm to heterosexual marriage. I have yet to meet anyone who can explain to me what this means. In what way would allowing same-sex partners to marry diminish the marriages of heterosexual couples? Tellingly, when the judge in our case asked our opponent to identify the ways in which same-sex marriage would harm heterosexual marriage, to his credit he answered honestly: he could not think of any.”

 Interestingly, pollster extraordinaire Nate Silver has crunched some numbers and come to a conclusion that undercuts assertions that same-sex marriage is detrimental to heterosexual marriage.

 “Over the past decade or so, divorce has gradually become more uncommon in the United States. Since 2003, however, the decline in divorce rates has been largely confined to states which have not passed a state constitutional ban on gay marriage. These states saw their divorce rates decrease by an average of 8 percent between 2003 and 2008. States which had passed a same-sex marriage ban as of January 1, 2008, however, saw their divorce rates rise by about 1 percent over the same period.”

 It takes time for the conventional wisdom to reflect such data. But if we doubt that conventional wisdom is now on the side of equality, we have one more bit of evidence from the Proposition 8 trial: The witnesses set to testify in defense of Proposition 8 have asked the Court to keep the media out. They claim they will be “endangered” if their identities are known. Really? These people base their defense of Proposition 8 on their assertion that tradition and morality and public opinion are on their side. If that is so, why not speak out publicly? Why not bask in the approval of the public? The only possible answer is: the public’s opinion has changed.

 And that is cause for celebration. Hopefully, wedding celebrations.