Last month the Supreme Court handed down decisions on United States v. Windsor (DOMA) and Hollingsworth v. Perry (Proposition 8). They covered different issues and made different claims, but both opened up marriage to gay couples.
This shouldn’t surprise readers of my writing, but I was disappointed with much of the news coverage. Most of what I saw from the major networks held up the decisions to “who won, who lost” and missed the reasoning behind the decisions. I was interested in this and also which justices landed on which side.
The DOMA case was 5-4; Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion and was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justices Roberts, Scalia, and Alito wrote dissents; Justice Thomas joined the dissents of Justices Scalia and Alito.
DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996. Basically it mandated that the federal government not recognize gay marriage even if the marriage is legal where it was performed. That meant gay couples who legally married were not eligible for such things as joint filing of income taxes, survivor benefits for Social Security, etc. The lawsuit was brought by the widow of a lesbian marriage; because their marriage was not recognized by the federal government the surviving member owed $363,053 in probate taxes. If not for DOMA she would not have owed anything (you automatically get all your spouse’s assets tax free when he or she dies). She claimed that the federal government must recognize all valid marriages, not just heterosexual ones. She was also able to show that DOMA caused her harm to the tune of $363,053.
The majority of the court (led by Justice Kennedy) argued that since states issue marriage licenses the federal government can’t decide which marriages are valid and which aren’t. Different states have different rules about who can marry (e.g. minimum age) and the federal government recognizes any marriage the state recognizes. DOMA puts homosexual marriages in a different case for no good reason
The dissents argue a few points. Justice Scalia argues that the court should never have taken the case (it’s a fairly technical point that he makes well). Most of the rest are what we’ve come to expect: that traditional (opposite sex) marriages are the norm because only they can produce children. They also decry the demonization they have suffered: opponents of same sex marriage are right only because they are demonized as homophobes and bigots.
In a sense they have a point: they are homophobes and bigots. The justices who dissented argue several points that make no sense and weak arguments: “this decision refutes the will of the majority,” “this decision goes beyond what everyone used to assume about marriage,” “this decision allows people to love one another in a way that offends me,” etc.
Simply put, this allows adults to marry each other. Granted, homosexual marriages cannot produce children but neither can marriages of heterosexual couples where the woman is post-menopausal or where one (or both) have been sterilized. We, who are heterosexual, cannot ban marriages that we find gross and icky. Marriages in the this country haven’t been homosexual, but in many states marriages weren’t biracial until 1967 (Loving v. Virginia).
The Proposition 8 case was more interesting in the lineup. The 5 person majority consisted of Justice Roberts (who wrote the opinion) and was joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. Justice Kennedy wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayer.
The Court ruled that they weren’t going to rule on the merits of the Prop 8 case because the defendants had no standing (they had no right to bring the case). The case originated with several gay couples who wanted to marry but were prevented by Prop 8; they filed suit against the state of California. In the first round the court ruled for the plaintiffs, and the state of California decided not to appeal. Supporters of Prop 8 stepped in as defendants, claiming that they had standing because they were the ones who collected the signatures for the ballot initiative. The Court ruled that they may have had standing during the process of putting the measure on the ballot, but once it passed, only the state of California could defend the proposition.
This was a mixed result for supporters of gay marriage. While this will allow gay marriages in California once again, it does not affect laws in other states. Many of us wanted the Court to go further and rule that Prop 8 is unconstitutional because the states don’t have the right to ban gay marriage. They wanted a gay version of Loving v. Virginia.
What next? Proponents of gay marriage have 2 routes: they can bring suit in a state that currently bans gay marriage, or they can start working on the state legislature level to pass laws that allow gay marriage. I’m guessing that groups will try both, and I suspect that the days of homophobia in marriage are numbered.