I am working on a several pieces regarding the annual early summer flurry of Supreme Court decisions, including the decision on same sex marriage and what I think it portends for the future. Without regard to whether the extension of marriage laws to same sex couples is or is not a good idea. I think that the Court got it wrong. In fact, as a matter of law (as opposed to public policy or moral philosophy), it is one of the worst decisions I have ever read. This is not because it recognizes same sex marriage. While I think the notion that the Constitution has anything to say on this is quite wrong, one could have written a much better opinion to argue that it does. In fact, Judge Barbara Crabb, even though I disagreed with her conclusion, did precisely that in striking down the definition of marriage chosen by the people of Wisconsin.
The problem with last week's decision is the standardless way in which it was done. This will now haunt the law in other areas. It is just not resemble anything that we might properly call legal reasoning and it has no boundaries. Although the Court feinted in the direction of equal protection, it engaged in nothing resembling equal protection analysis. Rather it relied on a handful of cases recognizing a free floating right to either be free of laws that restrict your ability to define yourself (or, in this case, to demand the application of laws that help you to do so). If that's permissible, then the Court can strike down almost any law depending on what the current crop of Justices believe that self-definition requires. Our democracy will exist at the sufferance of unelected judges. But more on that later.
I wanted to post now to respond to a misstatement in a Journal Sentinel editorial praising the decision. (I'm helping them out this week.) The editorial board wrote that thirty-six states allow same sex marriage and that Friday's decision simply compels the fourteen remaining states to go along. This makes it seem like the Court simply roped in a few outliers. That's not accurate. In fact, only eleven states and the District of Columbia (all of them about as blue as you can get) decided to allow same sex marriage through democratic means. Another five have adopted it by the command of a state court interpreting a state constitution. All of the remaining states in which same sex marriage is recognized ("allow" is the wrong word; same sex couples were "allowed" to exist everywhere) did it by command of the federal courts. Most of those decisions came after Justice Kennedy had clearly signaled that there were five votes for Friday's result in the Windsor decision in 2013. Perhaps all of these states would have come to extend their marriage laws to same sex couples, but we'll never know.
If last week's decision had gone the other way - if no right to same sex marriage had been found - all of those federal decisions would have been effectively overruled and the law in each of those states, including Wisconsin, would have returned to what it was before a federal court had intervened. So last week's decision actually invalidated or affirmed the invalidation of the law in thirty-four states.
This is not just a pedantic or technical point. In the history of the Court, I can think of only few decisions - maybe as few as one - that imposed so radical a change on so many states. Love it or hate it, the Supreme Court has done something that it rarely does. You'd think there would be a strong legal basis for it. But more on that later.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.