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Trump Changes Policy on Military Service by Transgender Individuals

Posted on: August 27th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

On July 26, to the surprise of Defense Department officials and members of the White House staff, Donald Trump transmitted a series of three tweets beginning at 8:55 a.m. announcing a new policy concerning military service by transgender individuals. “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……  ….Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming….. ….victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”  This appeared to be a complete reversal of a policy decision made a year earlier by the Defense Department, which after a period of prolonged study that included a report commissioned from the RAND Corporation (a “think-tank” that specializes in producing studies on defense-related issues by contract with the DoD) and widespread consultations within the military and with military allies that allow transgender individuals to serve had concluded to rescind an existing regulation that established a ban on service by transgendered individuals on purported medical grounds.  As a result of the policy newly announced during June 2016, hundreds of transgender service members “came out” to their superior officers, and some service members who had been concealing their gender identity for years began the process of transition with the assurance that the costs would be covered under military health policies.  Estimates of the number of transgender service members ranged from a few thousand as high as 15,000, most of whom have not yet made their presence known to their commanding officers.  This unknown group likely includes many officers as well as enlisted personnel.

Attempts to discern details of the new policy were at first unsuccessful because neither the usual sources in the White House nor the Pentagon had received any advance notice or details. Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, immediately announced that the Coast Guard would not “abandon” its several openly-transgender members, and that he and his staff had reached out to reassure them.  The other military service heads and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff quickly announced that there would be no change of policy until some formal directive came from the Office of the President.  A spontaneous presidential tweet was not deemed by the Pentagon to be an order to abandon an existing published policy.  The White House finally issued a document titled “Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security” on August 25, signed by President Trump, directing a series of steps that appeared to fall far short of the draconian July 26 tweets.

After a paragraph summarizing what had been done the previous summer and noting that the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security had extended a July 1, 2017, date for allowing transgender people to join the military to January 1, 2018, the President stated his reasoning: “In my judgment, the previous Administration failed to identify a sufficient basis to conclude that terminating the Departments’ longstanding policy and practice would not hinder military effectiveness and lethality, disrupting unit cohesion, or tax military resources, and there remain meaningful concerns that further study is needed to ensure that continued implementation of last year’s policy change would not have those negative effects.”  This was stated in blithe disregard of the fact that over the past year transgender military service members, in reliance on the announced policy change, had come out to their commanders by the hundreds and that there was no evidence during that time of any adverse effect on military operations or unit cohesion, or of significant strain on the military’s budget attributable to this policy change.  There has been no reporting that military commanders had asked to abandon the policy allowing transgender individuals to serve, and there has been no reporting that either Trump or members of his staff have actually reviewed the voluminous materials generated by the review process undertaken by the DoD prior to announcing its change of policy in June 2016, or were reacting to actual data indicating problems over the past year (since there have not been reports of any such problems).

After invoking the president’s powers as Commander in Chief, the Memorandum continues, “I am directing the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Homeland Security with respect to the U.S. Coast Guard, to return to the longstanding policy and practice on military service by transgender individuals that was in place prior to June 2016 until such time as a sufficient basis exists upon which to conclude that terminating that policy and practice would not have the negative effects discussed above. The Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, may advise me at any time, in writing, that a change to this policy is warranted.”

The Memorandum then sets out specific “directives,” apparently intended to be the operative provisions of the Memorandum. First is to “maintain the currently effective policy regarding accession of transgender individuals into military service beyond January 1, 2018, until such time as the Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, provides a recommendation to the contrary that I find convincing.”  In other words, the existing ban on enlisting transgender individuals will continue indefinitely, but can be ended when the Secretary of Defense convinces the president to end it.  Second is to “halt all use of DoD or DHS resources to fund sex reassignment surgical procedures for military personnel, except to the extent necessary to protect the health of an individual who has already begun a course of treatment to reassign his or her sex.” Interestingly, this directive mentions only “sex reassignment surgical procedures” but not any of the other costs associated with gender transition, including hormone treatment, which may reflect either ignorance by the White House staffers who drafted the Memorandum or a deliberate intention to make the exclusion as narrow as possible, focusing only on the political “flashpoint” of surgery. The Memorandum states that this second directive about surgical expenses will take effect on March 23, 2018.  In other words, transgender individuals currently serving will continue to be covered for sex reassignment surgical procedures at least until March 23, 2018, and continuing beyond then if cutting off coverage on that date interferes with completing surgical procedures already under way.  Or at least, that’s what it appears to say.

Third, in the section titled “effective dates and implementation,” the Memorandum gives the Secretary of Defense until February 21, 2018, to submit to the president a “plan for implementing both the general policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum and the specific directives set forth in section 2 of this memorandum. The implementation plan shall adhere to the determinations of the Secretary of Defense, made in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, as to what steps are appropriate and consistent with military effectiveness and lethality, budgetary constraints, and applicable law.  As part of the implementation plan, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall determine how to address transgender individuals currently serving in the United States military.  Until the Secretary has made that determination, no action may be taken against such individuals under the policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum.”  The Memorandum also has a severability provision, the usual disclaimers accompanying presidential directives about not creating new rights or changing the authority of any government departments or agencies, and permission to the Secretary to publish the Memorandum in the Federal Register.  (It was made immediately available on the White House website.)

On a plain reading, the “effective dates and implementation” section appears to mark a substantial retreat from the absolutist tone of the July 26 tweets. In trying to construe the tweets, there had been speculation that transgender service members would be immediately discharged or pressured to resign in order to avoid discharge.  Leaks from the White House while staff members were working on a written guidance for the president to sign led to reports that transgender enlisted personnel would be allowed to serve out their enlistments but then be denied reenlistment while being encouraged to resign earlier, and that transgender officers could continue to serve their commissions but would be required to resign if being considered for promotions.

Based on the leaks, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the Boston-based New England public interest law firm, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), based in San Francisco, with cooperating attorneys from Foley Hoag LLP and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, filed a lawsuit on August 9 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, representing five “Jane Doe” plaintiffs, all presently serving transgender individuals, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Doe v. Trump, Case 1:17-cv-01597.  The plaintiffs, with varying lengths of service, present compelling stories about the harms the proposed policy would have on them, based, of course, on what was known when the complaint was filed.  Among them, of course, were interference with ongoing transitions, interference with attaining military pensions (which some were close to vesting), and loss of career and benefits, affecting not only the plaintiffs but their family members as well.  There was also the emotional stress generated by uncertainty about their future employment and welfare.

The three-count complaint asserts violations of equal protection and due process (Fifth Amendment) and invokes the doctrine of estoppel to prevent adverse moves against the plaintiffs and those similarly situated as presently serving transgender members of the military who had been encouraged to “come out” as transgender under the earlier policy. The named defendants, in addition to the president, are Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the Departments of the Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard, Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson, Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke, and, for good measure, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.  There was some speculation and criticism that filing the lawsuit before a formal policy was announced or implemented was premature and might result in a dismissal on grounds of standing or ripeness, but the release of the formal guidance just a few weeks after the suit was filed will undoubtedly lead to the filing of an amended complaint focusing more specifically at the changes announced in the Memorandum.  The lengthy delay specified by the Memorandum for implementing changes may be invoked by the Justice Department in seeking to get this case dismissed.  Perhaps the Memorandum was drafted with this strategic use in mind.

Press coverage of the July 26 tweets showed overwhelming opposition and criticism from media, many government officials, and members of both parties in Congress. Those who voiced support of the president’s announcement came from the House Republicans who had waged a losing battle to amend a pending Defense budget measure to ban use of any appropriations to pay for sex reassignment surgery for military members, and there were soon press reports that supporters of that amendment had specifically asked the president to take steps to prevent spending federal funds for this purpose.  Furthermore, it was reported that threats had been made to block passage of the Defense measure – which was intended to provide some funding for the president’s project to “build the wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico (reflecting his ignorance of world history, and most specifically of the spectacular failure of the vaunted “Maginot Line” constructed after World War I to protect France from any future invasion by German military forces) – unless the president prevented military expenditures on sex reassignment procedures.  To the simple-minded president, the solution was obvious.  Reviving a ban on all military service by transgender individuals meant that there would be no openly transgender individuals in the military seeking to have such procedures performed and, since reversing Obama Administration policies regardless of their merits seems to be the main goal of many of Trump’s actions, simply overturning the Obama Administration policy became his simplistic solution to his political problem.  There was no indication that Trump made this decision after consulting “my Generals” or military experts – at least, the White House never revealed the names of any such individuals who were consulted, and it appeared that Secretary Mattis had merely been informed of the president’s intentions the night before the tweets.  One suspects that Trump’s “expert” was likely Steve Bannon, a former Marine.

The August 25 Memorandum did not require the immediate, or even eventual, discharge of anybody, and appeared to give Secretary Mattis wide discretion to come up with an implementing plan and at least six months to do it, while barring any action against transgender service members during the intervening time. Furthermore, in typical “kick the can down the road” Trump style (which is, admittedly, a typical style of U.S. politicians generally, only more pronounced in this president), it leaves open the possibility that the Obama Administration policies will be left in place, provided Mattis asks for this in writing summoning persuasive evidence that nothing is gained and much is lost by preventing transgender individuals from enlisting or being commissioned out of the service academies or by blocking transgender service members (including commissioned officers) from continuing their service.  Press accounts noted that the anticipated expense of covering sex reassignment surgery was dwarfed by the annual military expenditure on Viagra and similar drugs  (Who knew, as Trump might ask, that the Defense Department, the government’s most “macho” agency, was spending so much money to stiffen the limp genitals of male members?), and that the replacement costs for several thousand fully-trained and productive military members would far outweigh the costs of down-time for the relatively small number of individuals at any given time who might be unavailable for assignment while recovering from sex reassignment surgery.  (There is no indication that the other steps in gender transition, including hormone therapy, are disabling in a way that would interfere with military service.)

As worded, the Memorandum leant itself to the interpretation that with the passage of time, as the immediate political problem that “inspired” Trump to emit his tweets had been surmounted, sober heads could prevail, Mattis could reassure the transgender troops that nothing was happening right away, and eventually the president would accept Mattis’s written recommendation to allow transgender individuals to serve after all. (This interpretation depends on Mattis having the fortitude and political courage to tell the president, as he had done during the transition after the election on the subject of torture as an interrogation device, that Trump’s announced position did not make sense as a matter of military policy.)  Of course, the Memorandum directive means continuing discrimination against transgender individuals who seek to enlist, raising serious constitutional issues in light of the increasing recognition by federal courts that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination in equal protection doctrine, but the Memorandum, as it plays out, could avoid the loss of employment for transgender individuals now serving, although it would pose continuing emotional stress stemming from the uncertainty of future developments until Mattis convinces the president to countermand his new “policy.”

When the GLAD/NCLR suit was filed, other organizations, including Lambda Legal and ACLU, announced that they would be preparing lawsuits as well, and the release of the Memorandum on August 25 led to immediate announcements that more lawsuits will be filed. “See you in court,” wrote ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero to the organization’s supporters.  As with other “bold” executive actions by Trump, this anti-transgender initiative may be stopped in its tracks by preliminary injunctions, although the Memorandum was evidently drafted to try to minimize that likelihood by suggesting that nothing much is going to happen right away other than the continuing ban on enlistment.  As to the enlistment ban, it is questionable that the original GLAD/NCLR plaintiffs, all currently serving members, have standing to challenge it, but one expects that an amended complaint would add as plaintiffs some transgender individuals who hope to enlist.

Houston Benefits Dispute May Bring Marriage Equality Issue Back to the Supreme Court

Posted on: January 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Conservatives eager to bring the marriage equality issue back to the U.S. Supreme Court after President Donald J. Trump has had an opportunity to appoint some conservative justices may have found a vehicle to get the issue there in an employee benefits dispute from Houston. On January 20, the Texas Supreme Court announced that it had “withdrawn” its September 2, 2016, order rejecting a petition to review a ruling by the state’s intermediate court of appeals that had implied that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, might require Houston to provide the same spousal health benefits to same-sex as different-sex spouses of City workers.  Instead, announced the Court, it had reinstated the petition for review and scheduled oral argument for March 1, 2017.  Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353 (Tex. 14th Dist. Ct. App., 2015), review denied, sub nom. Pidgeon v. Turner, 2016 WL 4938006 (Texas Supreme Ct., September 2, 2016), No. 16-0688, Order withdrawn, motion for rehearing granted, petition reinstated (Jan. 20, 2017).

The plaintiffs in the Houston benefits case, Houston taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, had filed a motion for rehearing with active support from Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both ardent marriage equality opponents eager to chip away at the marriage equality ruling or even to get it reversed. The Texas Supreme Court’s order denying review had been issued over a fervent dissenting opinion by Justice John Devine, who argued for a limited reading of Obergefell, and the Republican leaders’ amicus brief in support of review channeled Devine’s arguments.

Trump’s nomination of a conservative to fill the seat left vacant when Justice Antonin Scalia died last February would not change the Supreme Court line-up on marriage equality. Obergefell was decided by a 5-4 vote, with Scalia dissenting.  However, it is possible – even likely, if rumors of a possible retirement by Justice Anthony Kennedy at the end of the Court’s 2017-18 Term are accurate – that Trump will get an opportunity to replace the author of the Obergefell decision with a more conservative justice in time for the Court’s 2018-19 Term.  Regardless how the Texas Supreme Court rules on this appeal, its interpretation of the scope of Obergefell could set up a question of federal constitutional law that could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and once the issue gets to the Court, it is possible that the Obergefell dissenters, strengthened in number by new conservative appointees, could take the opportunity to narrow or even overrule the marriage equality decision.

The Houston dispute dates back to 2001, when Houston voters reacted to a City Council move to adopt same-sex partner benefits by approving a City Charter amendment that rejected city employee health benefits for “persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.” In 2001 same-sex couples could not legally marry anywhere in the world, so this effectively denied benefits to any and all same-sex partners of City employees.  Texas was also one of many states that put firm bans on same-sex marriage into its constitution and family law statute.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, an openly-lesbian longtime LGBT rights advocate, announced the extension of health benefits to same-sex spouses of City employees. Although same-sex couples could not then marry in Texas, they could go to any of a number of other states to get married, including California and New York and, most conveniently as a matter of geography, Iowa.  Parker and her City Attorney concluded that under the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the DOMA case, United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, Houston’s city government was obligated to recognize lawfully contracted same-sex marriages of city employees and provide them the same benefits that were accorded to other city employees.  Federal constitutional requirements would override the City Charter ban as well as state law.

Taxpayers Pidgeon and Hicks filed suit in state court, contending that Parker’s action violated the Texas Constitution and statutes, as well as the city charter amendment. They persuaded the trial judge to issue a temporary injunction against the benefits extension while the case was pending.  The City appealed that ruling to the 14th District Court of Appeals, which sat on the appeal as new marriage equality litigation, sparked by the Windsor ruling, went forward in dozens of states including Texas.  A Texas federal district judge ruled in 2014 in the De Leon case that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.  The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the state’s appeal of that ruling in January 2015.  After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in June 2015, the 5th Circuit issued its decision upholding the Texas district court, 791 F.3d 619, which in turn ordered Texas to allow and recognize same-sex marriages.  This prompted the 14th District Court of Appeals to issue its decision on July 28, 2015.

The Court of Appeals ruling in Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353, said, “Because of the substantial change in the law regarding same-sex marriage since the temporary injunction was signed, we reverse the trial court’s temporary injunction and remand for proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  The court did not rule on the merits, merely sending the case back to the trial court to issue a decision “consistent with” the federal marriage equality rulings.  What those rulings may require in terms of city employee benefits is a matter of some dispute.

Pidgeon and Hicks petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to review this court of appeals decision, but the court denied that petition on September 2, 2016, with Justice Devine dissenting. Devine argued that the court should have taken up the case because, in his view, the majority of the court “assumed that because the United States Supreme Court declared couples of the same sex have a fundamental right to marry, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires cities to offer the same benefits to same-sex spouses of employees as to opposite-sex spouses.  I disagree.” He continued: “Marriage is a fundamental right.  Spousal benefits are not.  Thus, the two issues are distinct, with sharply contrasting standards for review.  Because the court of appeals’ decision blurs these distinctions and threatens constitutional standards long etched in our nation’s jurisprudence, I would grant review.”

Justice Devine was mistaken as to the court of appeals decision. That court did not hold in its July 28 ruling that same-sex spouses of Houston employees are entitled to health benefits from the city.  Rather, it ruled that because of “substantial change in the law” since the temporary injunction was issued, the injunction should be reversed and the case sent back to the trial court for “proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  If the trial court, on reconsideration, concluded that Obergefell and De Leon did not require the City to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, as Justice Devine argued in his dissent, the trial court could still rule in favor of Pidgeon and Hicks.  All the court of appeals directed the trial judge to do was to rethink the case in light of the new federal rulings.

Devine’s argument rests on a very narrow reading of Obergefell.  He interprets the Supreme Court’s decision to be sharply focused on the right of same-sex couples to marry, resting on the Court’s conclusion that the right to marry is a “fundamental right.”  Thus, a state would have to have a “compelling interest” to deny the right, a test that the Supreme Court found was not met.  However, pointed out Devine, the Supreme Court never explicitly said that the federal constitution requires state and local governments to treat all marriages the same, regardless whether they are same-sex or different-sex marriages.  And, he argued, public employees do not have a fundamental constitutional right to receive health insurance benefits from their employer.  Thus, he contended, the state could decide who gets benefits based on its own policy considerations, which the courts should uphold if they satisfy the relatively undemanding “rationality” test that is used when a fundamental right is not at stake.  As to that, he argued that the state’s interest in procreation by married different-sex couples could justify extending benefits to them but not to same-sex couples.

A contrary argument would note that Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell specifically listed health insurance as one of the many benefits associated with marriage that contributed towards the conclusion that the right to marry was a fundamental right because of its importance to the welfare of a couple and their children.  Similarly, Justice Kennedy did not consider the “procreation” argument persuasive to justify denying the right to marry to same-sex couples.  On the other hand, the Supreme Court did not say anywhere in its opinion that states are constitutionally required to treat same-sex and different-sex couples exactly the same in every respect, ignoring any factual distinctions between them.  Justice Devine’s argument seems strained, but not totally implausible, especially in the hands of a conservatively-inclined court.

Timing is everything in terms of getting an issue before the Supreme Court, especially if the aim of Texas conservatives and their anti-LGBT allies around the country is to get the issue there after Trump has had two appointments.  Once the Texas Supreme Court hears oral argument on March 1, it could take as long as it likes to issue a ruling on the appeal, and it could be strategic about holding up a ruling until it looks likely that any Supreme Court appeal would be considered after the 2017-18 Term of the Court has concluded in June 2018.  After the Texas Supreme Court rules, the losing party could take up to 90 days to file a petition in the Supreme Court.  If the petition arrives at the Supreme Court after the end of its term, that Court won’t decide whether to grant review until the beginning of its new term in the fall of 2018, and if the petition is granted, argument would not take place for several months, giving the parties time to brief the merits of the case.  If the Texas Supreme Court decides to affirm the court of appeals, it is highly likely that Pidgeon and Hicks, abetted by Abbott and Paxton, will seek Supreme Court review.  If the Texas Supreme Court reverses, the City of Houston will have to decide whether to seek Supreme Court review, or whether to adopt a wait-and-see attitude while the trial court proceeds to a final ruling on the merits of the case.  And the trial court could well decide, upon sober reflection, that Obergefell compels a ruling against Pidgeon and Hicks, which would put them back in the driver’s seat as to the decision to appeal to the Supreme Court.

If a second Trump appointee was confirmed while all of this was playing out, the case would be heard by a bench with a majority of conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents, one by George H.W. Bush (Clarence Thomas), two by George W. Bush (Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito), and two by Donald Trump. Trump’s appointees would be joining three Republican colleagues who filed or signed dissents in the Windsor and Obergefell cases.  Regardless of how the Petitioner frames the questions posed to the Court, the justices are free to rewrite the question or questions on which they grant review.  If a majority of the newly-constituted Court is eager to revisit Obergefell, they could grant review on the question whether Obergefell was correctly decided.  Based on past history, they could reach that issue if a majority wants to do so without signaling its salience in the Order granting review.

Much of this is conjecture, of course. Justice Devine was a lone voice dissenting from the September 2 order to deny review in this case.  But that order was issued at a time when national pollsters were near unanimous in predicting that Hillary Clinton would be elected and, consequently, would be filling the Scalia vacancy and any others that occurred over the next four years. The political calculus changed dramatically on November 8 when Trump was elected. Even though he has stated that he accepts marriage equality as a “settled issue,” his announced intention to appoint Justices in the image of Scalia and to seek reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Court’s seminal abortion decision from 1973, suggests that he will appoint justices who have a propensity to agree with the Obergefell dissenters that the marriage equality ruling was illegitimate.  (Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his dissent that it had “nothing to do with the Constitution.”)  Although the Court has frequently resisted efforts to get it to reverse highly consequential constitutional decisions, it has occasionally done so, most notably in the LGBT context in its 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down a state sodomy law and overruling its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

After the election, many LGBT rights organizations issued statements to reassure people that marriage equality would not immediately disappear after Trump took office. That remains true.  A constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court can only be changed by the adoption of a constitutional amendment, which Democrats can easily block in Congress, or overruling by the Supreme Court, which requires that a new case come up to the Court at a time when a majority of the Court is receptive to the overruling argument, which seems to be at least two years off from now.  But these statements, including those by this writer, conceded that in the long run it was possible that Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and new appeals headed to the Supreme Court might come together to endanger marriage equality.  This new development in the Houston benefits case shows one way that could happen.

No, Donald Trump Can’t Repeal Marriage Equality

Posted on: November 11th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Some panicky LGBT people have been calling the LGBT legal and political organizations to ask whether they should accelerate their wedding plans to marry before Donald Trump takes office, and many are expressing concern that the marriage equality victory, won in the Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, after so much hard work and heartache, is now in danger of being reversed, and that their own same-sex marriages might become invalid.

 

Although nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty, it is highly unlikely that the marriage equality decision will be reversed, and it is an absolute certainty that Trump as president will not have the authority to reverse it on his own or even with the connivance of Congress.  Furthermore, there is good legal authority to conclude that a valid marriage, once contracted, can only be ended by a divorce or by the death of one of the spouses, not by executive fiat or legislative action.

 

The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, voting 5-4, that same-sex couples have a right to marry as part of the liberty guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, bolstered by the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.  A ruling on a constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court can only be changed in one of two ways: a constitutional amendment, or an overruling by the Supreme Court in a later case.  Once a case is decided and the Court sends its mandate out to the lower court from which the case was appealed, the losing party can file a petition seeking a rehearing, but such a petition has to be filed quickly and the Court almost always denies them.  We are now 18 months out from the Obergefell ruling.  It is final, done, no longer open to reconsideration by the Court.  And the President has no power to “repeal” or “overrule” it by himself.  Neither does Congress.

 

During the campaign, Donald Trump did not threaten to try to repeal or reverse the ruling on his own. He said he thought the question of marriage should have been left to the states, so he disagreed with the Court’s decision, and he said he would consider appointing new justices to the Supreme Court who would vote to overrule it.

 

Trump can’t appoint a new justice to the Court until there is a vacancy.  There is one now, due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last winter and the refusal by the Senate to consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to replace him.  But Justice Scalia dissented in the Obergefell case, so replacing him with a conservative judge would not change the outcome.  The five-member majority in Obergefell – Justices Anthony Kennedy (who wrote the Court’s opinion), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan – are all still there.  And there is no case now pending before the Court that would provide a vehicle for overruling Obergefell v. Hodges.  And any marriage equality opponent thinking strategically would be waiting until one of those majority justices leaves before attempting to launch a legal challenge.

 

What about the constitutional amendment route?  That is not going to happen.  Trump’s election doesn’t affect that at all, since the President plays no role in amending the Constitution.  Article V makes it so difficult to pass an amendment that our 240-year-old Constitution has picked up only 27 amendments, ten of them being the Bill of Rights adopted in 1791, and the most recent one, adopted in 1992, a quarter century ago, requiring that any pay raise that Congress votes for itself cannot go into effect until after the next House of Representatives election.  In order to propose a new amendment, at least 2/3 of each house of Congress has to approve it, and then it has to be ratified by at least ¾ of the states.  Alternatively, 2/3 of the states can apply to Congress to call a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of proposing amendments, but any amendments proposed would still require ratification by ¾ of the states.

 

By the time the Supreme Court decided Obergefell in 2015, popular opinion polls showed that a clear majority of the public supported marriage equality, and that margin of support only increases over time, as polling in the early marriage equality states such as Massachusetts has shown.  Amendments to the Constitution can only pass with overwhelming public support.  There is no overwhelming public support to abolish same-sex marriage.  That effort is now the province mainly of far-right-wing cranks and religious fanatics.  And as long as the Democrats hold more than 1/3 of the seats in the Senate, it is highly unlikely that a Marriage Amendment would get the necessary 2/3 vote in that chamber.  Indeed, the Democrats hold enough seats in that House, in combination with some more moderate Republicans, to block it in that chamber as well.  So, marriage equality opponents, forget about passing a Marriage Amendment.

 

The alternative, of course, is for opponents to set up a lawsuit raising the question and to get it to the Supreme Court after Trump (or a successor) has had an opportunity to appoint somebody to replace a member of the Obergefell majority.   That majority includes the three oldest members of the Court, Ginsburg, Kennedy and Breyer, so it is possible Trump will have that opportunity before the end of a four-year term.   Even then, however, an overruling is highly unlikely.

 

First, a case presenting the question has to come to the Court, and the issue of marriage equality has to be central to that case.  The Court may be presented over the next few years with cases that involving marriage equality in some way.  They already have a petition to review the Colorado marriage cake case, presenting the claim that a baker’s 1st Amendment rights are violated by fining him under a state anti-discrimination law for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but I’m not sure such a case, even if the Supreme Court decided to hear it, would provide a vehicle for overruling Obergefell.  More likely, a challenge would come from some state deciding to provoke a lawsuit by denying equal treatment for some benefit to a married same-sex couples. But it’s not enough just to petition the Court, because the Court has complete discretion about whether to accept a case for review, and it takes four Justices to grant such a petition.  By the time they get such a petition AFTER a change of membership has reduced the Obergefell majority, perhaps several years from now, same-sex marriage will be such a settled issue, with so many tens of thousands of same-sex couples married throughout the country, that it seems highly unlikely that even four members of the Court would be motivated to reopen the issue.

 

Furthermore, the Court normally embraces a concept called “stare decisis,” a Latin term meaning standing by what has been decided.  They are very reluctant to overrule themselves, especially when a decision has been embraced by society and incorporated into the everyday lives of many people.  When they do overrule a prior decision, it is usually in the direction of realizing that the old decision wrongly denied a constitutional claim or adopted an incorrect and harmful interpretation of a statute.   The Court resists attempts to get it to cut back rights that it previously recognized.

 

In the course of litigating about LGBT rights, the Court has twice overruled past decisions.  In 2003, the Court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) when it decided that the constitution protected people engaged in consensual gay sex from criminal prosecution, in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).  Indeed, the Court said that Bowers was wrong when it was decided.  The second time, it overruled Baker v. Nelson (1972) when it held that same-sex couples have a right to marry.  Baker, however, was a one-sentence decision stating that the issue of same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question.”  In both cases, overruling involved a determination that the prior case had wrongly failed to recognize a constitutional right, so the new decision marked an expansion of liberty and equality. The Court is unlikely to overrule a case in order to contract liberty or deny equality.

 

As to the validity of existing same-sex marriages, when Californians passed Proposition 8 in 2008 after several thousand same-sex couples had married in that state, the California Supreme Court ruled that although Prop 8 was validly enacted, it could not retroactively “un-marry” all those couples.  Their marriages would continue to be valid and recognized by the state.  It is unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would take a different position regarding existing same-sex marriages if it were to overrule Obergefell.  That would raise daunting due process and equal protection questions.

 

Trump’s taking office does not present a direct and present threat to marriage equality.  It does present many other threats, including the loss of pro-LGBT executive orders and the likely abandonment by federal agencies of the position that sex discrimination laws protect LGBT people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  But those are other issues….