I appreciate that people who want civil marriage to include gay and lesbian couples are going to applaud the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. If you get what you want or what you believe to be right, it’s easy to overlook how it happened. But I want to suggest that all of us, no matter how we feel about marriage, should be deeply disturbed by the Supreme Court’s decision.
Here’s where you have to start. Five members of a group of nine lawyers decided that the marriage laws adopted by the people in 35 of the 50 states cannot be enforced. These five lawyers – who we did not elect and cannot replace – “found” that constitutional language adopted in 1868 means that no state can define marriage in the way it was defined by every society in human history until 2001. Not only was the traditional view (which was shared by the President and putative Democratic nominee until, figuratively, about six minutes ago) wrong, the Court says, but it was so egregiously wrong that it can no longer be permitted - no matter what a political majority may want.
Think about this. In applying principles like “liberty” and “equality,” it is essential that courts develop disciplines and limitations that will, as much as is possible, anchor their meaning in some source of authority other than the personal preferences of the judges who happen to be deciding the case. If this isn’t done, then judging becomes indistinguishable from legislating. It is why, for example, many lawyers and judges believe that constitutional provisions should be given their original meaning. The point is not to be ruled by the "dead hand of the past" but to recognize that it was the consent of a past generation that legitimizes the binding nature of the Constitution. Its meaning should bear some relationship to what they actually consented to.
This is not to say that one cannot attempt to argue for such a right using commonly accepted modes of legal analysis. While I disagreed with her conclusion, Judge Barbara Crabb, in striking down Wisconsin’s limitation of marriage to unions of one man and one woman, attempted to do just that and did it about as well as it can be done.
But in Obergefell, Justice Kennedy did not even try. His opinion might be a persuasive political argument, but it bears resemblance to law. While he suggested that a right of same sex marriage is rooted in the Constitution’s express guarantee of equal protection of the laws, he did none of the work that equal protection analysis requires. That would have required him to identify the standard for assessing distinctions drawn on the basis of sexual orientation (or, some would argue, gender) and then carefully balance the harm caused by the limitation of marriage to male-female unions and the reasons that a state might do so. You won’t find that in his opinion
Instead, Justice Kennedy emphasized the Constitution’s injunction against depriving persons of liberty without “due process of law.” The Court has, on rare occasions, read this provision to mean that there are certain things that the government can’t do even if does extend due process. (If this strikes you as odd, it should.) Those cases have, from time to time, recognized a fundamental right to marry, even though the Constitution itself says nothing about marriage.
This creation of such extra-textual “substantive due process” rights is quite controversial, but let’s put that aside. No previous cases involved anything other than the traditional view of marriage as a male-female union. Each one involving the right to marry made the challengers behavior a crime. That was not the case here. There’s no getting around the fact that, for better or worse, same-sex marriage is a very dramatic change and the idea that our Constitution compels it ought to give one pause.
If you were arguing for a change in marriage law in the legislature, you’d have an easier task. You could say that it is morally right to let gay couples marry. You could claim that it is good public policy to use marriage to facilitate same-sex relationships. But the Supreme Court has no authority to tell states that they cannot do something simply because a majority of its justices think they’re wrong and it just isn’t fair. That’s not judging. That’s legislating.
The danger – the reason that you should care even if you support same-sex marriage – is that lawyers work by analogy. In Obergefell, Justice Kennedy says that there is some type of constitutional right to express and define one’s identity. Even if you are sympathetic to the idea of rights that are not themselves expressed in the Constitution, this approach is completely unbounded. It can be employed in support of just about any rights claim and if it was proper to use it in Obergefell, then it’s hard to see why it won’t be proper to use it again. If today’s “new understanding” is that the Constitution means that marriage laws must include same sex couples, tomorrow’s might mean that I have the right to polyamorous marriage or to pay my workers whatever they’ll agree to take or to avoid military service. The contours of the Constitution and the restrictions it might place on democratic decision-making will be limited only by the human imagination.
In a scathing dissent, Justice Scalia wrote, that while it was not important to him what the law said about marriage, “[i]t is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.”
That should be important – and troubling - to all of us.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.