Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Collision at the Court

The oral arguments were held in Obergefell v. Hodges today. They were in two parts: on Question 1: “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?” and Question 2: “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?”.

You can listen to to oral argument and read an unofficial transcript on Question 1 here and on question 2 here.

I've only listened to the oral argument on Question 1 so far. There are many reports and articles on the arguments that would take weeks to study in full and you can be sure they will continue to come for some time. One early one was from the Washington Post. SCOTUSblog, a reliable source, has had numerous articles today and in the recent past. One of the clearest and most accessible to non-lawyers is Lyle Denniston's summary of the arguments.

For the truly obsessed, SCOTUSblog gives a plethora of links to commentary on the arguments from other sources.

The news of the day was Justice Kennedy agonized over whether the Court should, on it's own, change the institution of marriage, that had been, for “millennia,” understood as between a man and a woman, based only on a little over a decade of same-sex marriage. But later on in the argument, he showed impatience with, if not disdain toward, the arguments of the attorney representing the states.

By all reports, there was less fireworks in the argument on Question 2. But, interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts seemed to be hinting that he'd be favorable to a “yes” on that question. Even Justice Scalia appeared skeptical of the states' arguments that they didn't have to recognize marriages from other states that were valid under those states' laws. That led many commentators to speculate that Roberts may be trying to formulate a “compromise” with Kennedy: that the majority will answer “yes” to Question 2 but “no to Question 1. The effect would be that LGBT people would be able to get the benefits of marriage everywhere (by getting married in the 11 or 12 jurisdictions allowing same-sex marriage either by law, referendum or state court decisions based on state constitutions) that won't be effected by this decision but still allow most of the other states to maintain the fig leaf that they have not allowed such marriages in their state. The problem will be straightening out the status of thousands or tens of thousands of gay people who got married in states under court decisions that the Supreme Court refused to stay.

The inducement for such a compromise would likely be something like “Look, you can have a 9-0 decision (assuming Scalia would go along and Alito and Thomas would follow) that, for all intents and purposes, achieves same-sex marriage everywhere in the US, instead or a 5-4 decision that will set off a firestorm on the order of Roe v. Wade. Sure, there will still be the crazies predicting Armageddon, but the LGBT people will be inspired to bring referendums and constitutional amendments, particularly in 2016, when a presidential election guarantees large turnouts and gives them the best chance of success, that may just end any real controversy. A couple of dozen states reversing same-sex marriage bans would pretty much put the last nail in the coffin of the whole issue and we can clean up any lingering effects later.”

I could see that as appealing to Kennedy and even Ginsberg.

On the other hand, there were two particularly nice bits in the arguments. Mary Bonauto, arguing for the plaintiffs in Question 1, after being peppered on whether or not the Federal courts or the states should be the ones to decide if gays should be be allowed to marry, had this retort:
[I]n terms of the question of who decides, it's not about the Court versus the States. It's about the individual making the choice to marry and with whom to marry, or the government.
The other was by Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., who ended with:
… I would suggest is that in a world in which gay and lesbian couples live openly as our neighbors, they raise their children side by side with the rest of us, they contribute fully as members of the community, that it is simply untenable … untenable … to suggest that they can be denied the right of equal participation in an institution of marriage, or that they can be required to wait until the majority decides that it is ready to treat gay and lesbian people as equals. Gay and lesbian people are equal. They deserve equal protection of the laws, and they deserve it now.
And now we wait …

I'm not impressed by the 'it's been a tradition for millenia' argument. So was slavery - it still is in some parts - does that mean it should never have been abolished? I think even this court could agree on that, even Scalia. I'm predicting a split decision with Roberts swinging it in favor of SSM.
Yeah, put a gun to my head and I still think the most likely outcome is 6-3 for a constitutional right to marriage.
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