A great day for America with expansion of rights for same sex couples or a bleak day where the tyranny of five activist judges trump the political process creating a threat to democracy?
Take your pick: The profound political divides in the United States are to be found in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion granting Constitutional protection to those of the same sex who seek to marry and in the four dissenting opinions that blast that finding.
It’s dangerous to predict the historic importance of a single Supreme Court decision, but I’ll fearlessly hazard a guess that the decision on Obergefell v. Hodges – remember those names – will be remembered fifty or a hundred years from now along side Brown v. Board of Education, the historic decision that ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional.
One major difference in the two decisions separated by sixty-one years is that Brown was decided by a unanimous Court, while Obergefell was decided by a Court profoundly divided. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s judicial leadership helped create that earlier landmark civil rights decision in 1954. Chief Justice John Robert by contrast wrote the dissent in a decision decided 5-4.
The opinion and dissents will be picked over and analyzed for years, but at first blush I am struck by two things: the Court majority’s embrace of marriage as a fundamental right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (in the same way the Warren Court applied the Constitution to public schools) and the minority’s fierce condemnation of the Court’s overreaching by taking a divisive social and, to some, religious issue out of the hands of elected politicians.
Justice Anthony Kennedy – the real Chief Justice at least on this issue – wrote in the Court’s decision: “The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act. The idea of the Constitution [here Kennedy quotes from an earlier Court decision] “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.”
Kennedy was truly eloquent elsewhere in his opinion in describing the institution of marriage, but the paragraph above is the heart of his argument – certain rights in our democracy and under our Constitution simply cannot be left to the “vicissitudes” of politics. Rights are rights, Kennedy says, the Constitution guarantees those rights no matter what a legislature in Idaho or an appeals court in Texas might say.
Roberts in his dissent seemed almost unable to restrain his contempt for Kennedy’s reasoning about fundamental rights. “Understand well what this dissent is about,” Roberts wrote. “It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.”
Roberts and the Court’s other dissenters argued for leaving the decision to those Idaho legislators even at the risk of creating a vast and confusing landscape of law related to one of society’s most fundamental institutions.
[You might be excused for remembering that Roberts had no reservations about having “five lawyers” overrule the overwhelming majority of the United States Congress when the Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Emerson’s famous line comes to mind: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”]
Roberts may have accomplished one thing with his passionate dissent – his opinion upholding Obamacare is suddenly off the front page. The staunch conservatives who criticized him yesterday for siding with the president on health care can now view Roberts as rehabilitated with his dissent on same sex marriage.
Justice Antonin Scalia, of course, went even farther in his dissent. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868,” Scalia wrote in his dissent, “every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so. That resolves these cases.” In other words, in Scalia’s judicial view, nothing at all has changed since Andrew Johnson sat in the White House.
And there is more that I quote at some length because, well, because Justice Scalia is a man of words and often pungent, even nasty words.
“The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic”, Scalia wrote. “It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; [as many of his dissents have been accused of containing] it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do so. Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent. ‘The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.’ (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”
Remember that it was just over a decade ago that Karl Rove engineering George W. Bush’s two elections, at least in part, by embracing a strategy of placing polarizing anti-same sex marriage issues on many state ballots and endorsing a Constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage. Since then opinion has moved so quickly on the issue that it was perhaps inevitable that the Court would follow that opinion and codify what a solid majority of Americans now embrace. Still that political evolution makes Justice Kennedy’s decision no less historic. As President Obama correctly noted after years of incremental change; change that most of the time seems so very slow to so very many, justice can come like “a thunderbolt.”
Another fearless prediction: When the history books record the importance of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the words “landmark” and “historic” will be attached. The decision will be remembered for expanding rights for a significant and deprived group of American citizens under their Constitution. Scalia’s dissent will be remembered, if at all, as an artifact of a different country and a different time and, of course, for its outrageous bombast.
Ask the nearest hippie.