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Arkansas Supreme Court Rules Fayetteville Anti-Discrimination Measure Violates State Law

Posted on: February 23rd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Fayetteville has been a hotbed of LGBT rights advocacy, but on February 23 the Arkansas Supreme Court, reversing a ruling by Washington County Circuit Court Judge Doug Martin, found that the city and its voters had violated state law by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to their antidiscrimination ordinance. Protect Fayetteville & State of Arkansas v. City of Fayetteville, 2017 Ark. 49.  Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote the opinion for the unanimous court.

Responding to earlier attempts to enact LGBT rights protections in Fayetteville, the Arkansas legislature passed Act 137 in 2015. Titled the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act, Ark. Code Ann. Sec. 14-1-401 to 403, the measure was intended, according to its purpose section, “to improve intrastate commerce by ensuring that businesses, organizations, and employers doing business in the state are subject to uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations, regardless of the counties, municipalities, or other political subdivisions in which the businesses, organizations, and employers are located or engage in business or commercial activities.”  To that end, the measure bars local governments from adopting or enforcing “an ordinance, resolution, rule, or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.”  The Act recognizes one exception: local governments are left free to legislate on their own employment policies.  Thus, a city can adopt an ordinance banning discrimination in its own workforce on grounds “not contained in state law.”

Arkansas, in common with the entire southeastern United States, does not forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in its state antidiscrimination statute. The clear intent of the legislators was to preempt local governments from adding those two characteristics to their local antidiscrimination ordinances. Or at least that’s what the court held in this decision.

Local LGBT rights advocates and city officials took a different view, however, seizing upon the literal meaning of “not contained in state law” and finding that Arkansas laws existed mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, an anti-bullying law protects public school students and employees from bullying because of gender identity or sexual orientation, among a list of 13 characteristics.  There is also a provision in the state’s domestic violence law requiring domestic violence shelters to adopt nondiscrimination policies that include “sexual preference.”  And the state’s vital statistics act provides a mechanism for an individual to get a new birth certificate after sex reassignment surgery.  Taken together, the advocates argued that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are classifications that exist in Arkansas law, their inclusion in the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance would not be prohibited by Act 137.

The city council approved a new ordinance, Ordinance 5781, to add those categories to the local law, subject to an affirmative referendum vote. Opponents of the measure (plaintiffs in this case) tried to get the local court to stall the referendum while they contested the legality of the proposed ordinance, but the local court refused and the public voted to approve the measure.  Ultimately, Judge Martin agreed with the argument that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” could be added to the local ordinance, as they were categories that were mentioned in state law.

The Supreme Court’s reversal was premised on legislative intent. “In this case,” wrote Justice Hart, “the General Assembly expressly stated the intent.”  The operative language could not be construed in isolation from the prefatory provision explaining why the legislature had adopted Act 137.  They wanted nondiscrimination laws to be uniform through the state, and did not want localities to outlaw discrimination based on classifications that were not included in the state’s own antidiscrimination law.  “The express purpose of Act 137 is to subject entities to ‘uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations,’” wrote Justice Hart.  She also noted that the Fayetteville ordinance, in a provision explaining the city council’s purpose, stated that “its purpose is to ‘extend’ discrimination to include ‘sexual orientation and gender identity.”  Explained Justice Hart, “In essence, Ordinance 5781 is a municipal decision to expand the provisions of the Arkansas Civil Rights Act to include persons of a particular sexual orientation and gender identity.”  She’s incorrect, of course, as to this statement, since by its plain meaning the ordinance would protect anybody from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including “straight” and “cisgender” people.

“This violates the plain wording of Act 137 by extending discrimination laws in the City of Fayetteville to include two classifications not previously included under state law,” wrote Hart. “This necessarily creates a nonuniform nondiscrimination law and obligation in the City of Fayetteville that does not exist under state law. It is clear from the statutory language and the Ordinance’s language that there is a direct inconsistency between state and municipal law and that the Ordinance is an obstacle to the objectives and purposes set forth in the General Assembly’s Act and therefore it cannot stand.”  She noted that the statutes relied upon by the city and Judge Martin to argue that these categories were covered in state law were not antidiscrimination statutes, and thus could not be relied upon as a basis for adding them to the local antidiscrimination ordinance.

As a co-plaintiff in the case the State had intervened to protect the constitutionality of Act 137, which had been questioned by the city, but that issue had not been addressed by the circuit court, and the Supreme Court held it thus had not been preserved for appeal. The case was reversed and remanded.  On remand, the city could pursue the question of the constitutionality of Act 137.  It is strikingly similar, despite its euphemistic wording, to Colorado Amendment 2, which was declared unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment by the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans (1996).  Amendment 2 prohibited the state or any political subdivision from prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation.  The Supreme Court, focusing on the legislative history of the measure, condemned it as intended to make gay people unequal to everybody else in the state out of moral disapproval.  The state had advanced a desire for uniformity of state laws as one of many justifications for Amendment 2, but Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court, did not specifically reject any of the state’s justifications, merely stating that none of them were sufficient to justify the law, which did not even clear rational basis scrutiny.

Anti-Gay Justice Scalia Exits the Stage

Posted on: February 16th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

With the death of Antonin Scalia the Supreme Court has lost its most outspoken anti-gay member.  Ever since taking his seat on the high bench in 1986, Justice Scalia voted consistently against gay rights claims, sometimes in the majority and sometimes in dissent, regardless of the factual context in which they arose.

Scalia was appointed to the Court by President Ronald Reagan shortly after the Court had decided Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), the notorious case in which it rejected by a 5-4 vote a constitutional challenge to Georgia’s law making gay sex a crime.  There is no doubt how he would have voted in that case, since he subsequently argued (in dissent) that it had been correctly decided and should be reaffirmed and followed.

The first LGBT rights case to come up after his appointment, during Scalia’s first term on the Court in 1987, was San Francisco Arts & Athletics v. U.S. Olympic Committee.  The Olympic Committee sued for an injunction to stop SFAA from holding its international athletic competition under the name “Gay Olympics.”  The Supreme Court ruled that the USOC had a right under a federal statute to veto the use of “Olympics” in connection with athletic competitions run by other organizations, and that the statute did not violate the 1st Amendment free speech rights of others who wanted to run their own “Olympic” games.  Scalia joined the majority opinion by Justice Lewis Powell.  The Court refused to entertain the argument that USOC’s discriminatory exercise of its veto – allowing many other organizations to use “Olympic” in their name unchallenged – raised a constitutional issue, as the Court found that USOC was not a governmental organization, and thus not bound by the Equal Protection requirement.  Justices William J. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented in full, and two other justices  — Sandra Day O’Connor and Harry Blackmun — also opined that the case should be sent back to a lower court for further consideration of an equal protection challenge.

The Court ruled in 1988 that a gay man who had been discharged by the Central Intelligence Agency had a right to seek judicial review of his claim that he was a victim of unconstitutional discrimination.  Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the decision for the Court.  Scalia, who normally voted in line with the Chief Justice, penned a lengthy dissent, arguing that Congress had insulated such CIA personnel decisions from judicial review and was constitutionally entitled to do so.

Scalia subsequently joined a dissent by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in 1989 in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a case in which a majority of the Court accepted the argument that an employer who takes adverse action against an employee because she fails to conform to gender stereotypes may be violating the sex discrimination ban in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Justice Brennan’s opinion for a plurality of the Court influenced lower courts to adopt a broader approach to Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination, leading ultimately to provide protection to transgender plaintiffs and even some gay plaintiffs who can make a plausible claim that they encounter workplace discrimination due to gender stereotype non-conformity.  Although Justice Kennedy’s dissent, joined by Scalia, focused mainly on other issues in the case, it voiced skepticism about the “sex stereotyping” theory.

In 1996 Scalia “vigorously” dissented (to use his descriptive word) from the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Romer v. Evans, holding that Colorado Amendment 2 violated the equal protection rights of gay people.  Amendment 2 prohibited the state or its political subdivisions from adopting legislation that would protect gay people from discrimination.  The case provided Scalia with his first vehicle to accuse the Court of signing on to a gay rights agenda, because it was the first potentially wide-ranging pro-gay-rights decision to emanate from the Court.

“The constitutional amendment before us here is not the manifestation of a “‘bare . . . desire to harm'” homosexuals,” he wrote, refuting Justice Kennedy’s reasoning for the majority, “but is rather a modest attempt by seemingly tolerant Coloradans to preserve traditional sexual mores against the efforts of a politically powerful minority to revise those mores through use of the laws.” The description of “seemingly tolerant Coloradans” who had voted overwhelmingly to enact Amendment 2 in the wake of a horrifyingly homophobic media campaign drew shocked guffaws from LGBT commentators.

He continued: “This Court has no business imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected, pronouncing that ‘animosity’ toward homosexuality is evil.”  Scalia aligned the majority of the Court with the organized bar and the law school community, which had condemned anti-gay discrimination and moved to deny access to law school placement offices to discriminatory recruiters.  After summarizing Justice Kennedy’s rationale for the decision in sarcastic terms, Scalia insisted that by such reasoning “constitutional jurisprudence has achieved terminal silliness.”  He argued that the Court’s ruling was inconsistent with Bowers v. Hardwick and accused the Court of overruling that case without saying so.  If it was constitutional to make gay sex a crime, he asked, how could it be a violation of equal protection for a state to refuse to protect homosexuals from discrimination?

Pushing the point further, he wrote: “Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible — murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals — and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct, the same sort of moral disapproval that produced the centuries-old criminal laws that we held constitutional in Bowers.”

He went on at length in a similar vein, ultimately accusing the Court of ruling based on politics rather than law, and arguing for the right of individuals who did not want to associate with homosexuals in their workplaces to refuse to employ them.

This dissent set the pattern for Scalia’s increasingly vociferous dissents as he found himself on the losing side in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), United States v. Windsor (2013), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the cases in which the Court struck down sodomy laws, the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, and state laws against same-sex marriage.  These dissents were littered with colorful phrases one would not expect to find in the normally staid volumes of Supreme Court opinions, accusing Justice Kennedy of “argle-bargle” and asserting that he would be so ashamed to sign on the logic of the Obergefell decision that he would put his head in a paper bag.

Scalia’s dissents in these cases proved to be prophetic, probably to his dismay. He accused the Court of overruling Bowers v. Hardwick sub silentio in Romer, and the Court subsequently did so explicitly and emphatically in Lawrence.  He accused the Court of opening up the path to same-sex marriage in Lawrence, and exactly ten years later the Court, citing Lawrence, struck down the federal ban on recognition of same-sex marriages in Windsor.  In his Windsor dissent, Scalia accused the Court of providing a road-map for lower courts to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage, predicting that the issue would be back before the Court in two years.  Precisely two years later, the Court struck down such bans in Obergefell, over a hysterical Scalia dissent.  Not surprisingly, many lower court judges cited and quoted from Scalia’s dissents to support their rulings striking down same-sex marriage bans.

Throughout these dissents, Scalia bemoaned the Court’s weakening of the ability of legislative majorities to codify their moral judgments in law, detesting the moral relativism exhibited by Kennedy’s opinions exalting private morality above public morality as a matter of individual liberty protected by the Constitution.

When the marriage equality cases arrived at the Court’s door, Scalia fought a rear-guard action to try to keep lower court marriage equality rulings “stayed” until the Supreme Court could decide the cases, perhaps holding out hope that Justice Kennedy was not ready to extend the Windsor decision further, joining dissents by Justice Clarence Thomas, who sought to preserve the anti-marriage status quo as long as possible, even after the Supreme Court had denied review to several pro-marriage equality court of appeals rulings and agreed to review the one adverse ruling out of the 6th Circuit.

Scalia did enjoy some victories along the way after Romer v. Evans, however.  In Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, he joined a unanimous Court in striking down the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that the organizers of the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade were required under a state civil rights law to allow an LGBT group to participate in the event.  In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, he joined a 5-4 majority in striking down the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling that the Boy Scouts did not enjoy a 1st Amendment right to exclude openly gay men from leadership positions in violation of the state’s civil rights law.  In Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic & Institutional Rights, Inc., he joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the unanimous Court in rejecting a constitutional challenge to the Solomon Amendment, a provision denying federal funding to law schools that were refusing to allow military recruiters on campus due to the Defense Department’s anti-gay policies, reversing a contrary decision by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Scalia joined dissents in several other cases where the Court affirmatively addressed issues of concern to the LGBT community.  In Bragdon v. Abbott, he joined a dissent by Chief Justice William Rehnquist from the Court’s conclusion that a woman with HIV-infection could asserted a discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act against a dentist who refused to provide treatment to her in his office.  In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a 5-4 ruling, he joined a dissent against Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion, which held that the University of California Law School could refuse to extend official recognition to a student group that explicitly excluded “homosexuals” from its membership on religious grounds.  He was, of course, a frequent dissenter in cases upholding women’s right to terminate their pregnancies as part of their liberty under the Due Process Clause, in a key decision – Planned Parenthood v. Casey – writing in dissent that the Court’s support for abortion rights was inconsistent with its upholding of laws against “homosexual sodomy” in Bowers v. Hardwick.

Sometimes, however, Scalia wrote opinions that might prove useful to gay litigants, although their interests were not directly involved in the case before the Court. In Employment Division v. Smith, he wrote for the Court that individuals could not claim a broad right under the 1st Amendment’s protection for free exercise of religion to refuse to comply with general state laws because of their religious objections.  Although that decision spurred the passage of federal and state statutes providing some protection for religious dissenters, the degree to which such statutes would shield employers, landlords or businesses serving the public from discrimination charges remains hotly contested, and so far many courts have ruled against recalcitrant businesses that had refused to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings.  Scalia’s opinion in Smith was cited in some of these cases to reject the constitutional free exercise claims raised by the discriminators.

In another case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Scalia wrote for a unanimous Court that same-sex workplace harassment might violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act if the victim was singled out for harassment because of his sex. This case has also proved useful to some gay male litigants combatting workplace harassment by male co-workers, and Scalia’s comment that a statute could be interpreted to address “comparable evils” to those envisioned by the legislature has proved useful to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as it has moved to apply Title VII to discrimination claims brought by gay and transgender people.  One doubts that this was Scalia’s intent in penning the phrase, however.

In the Supreme Court’s only ruling to date on transgender rights, Farmer v. Brennan, Scalia joined an opinion for the Court by Justice David Souter holding that prison officials could be sued under the 8th Amendment for failing to take steps to protect transgender inmates from known risks of harm while incarcerated.

Justice Scalia’s main impact on the Court’s jurisprudence in general was to lend a degree of respectability to certain theories of constitutional and statutory interpretation that had been rejected or minimized in the past, but he was never able to persuade a stable majority of the Court to fully embrace his notion that the Constitution is “dead” – in the sense that its meaning was fixed at the time its provisions were adopted and cannot change in light of new circumstances – or that statutes should be construed by reference to their language without any regard to what legislators said they intended to accomplish by enacting them – so-called “legislative history,” for which he had open disdain. However, when he was assigned to write for the majority, he managed to work these ideas into his opinions to some extent, giving lower courts a basis to invoke them from time to time.

Justice Scalia departed from Supreme Court tradition by engaging in a substantial amount of public speaking.  In the past most justices avoided speaking publicly about substantive legal issues, lest they cross an ethical line and signal their views about cases pending before the Court.  Such concerns did not seem to bother Scalia, who said publicly on several occasions what he subsequently said officially in court opinions concerning claims by gay people for constitutional protection, which he invariably found to lack merit.  Homosexuality is not mentioned in the Constitution, which struck Scalia as the end of the matter, and he repeatedly argued that “the people” were entitled to vote against the interest of LGBT people as a matter of “democracy.”

After almost thirty years of service, he will be missed from the Court by many, but not all for the same reasons.

Supreme Court Grants Four Petitions to Review 6th Circuit’s Marriage Ruling

Posted on: January 19th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on January 16, 2015, that it was granting four petitions to review the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in DeBoer v. Snyder, 772 F.3d 388 (Nov. 6, 2014), which had rejected the claim that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry and to have such marriages recognized by other states.  The 6th Circuit’s ruling, issued on November 6 on appeals by four states from district court pro-marriage equality decisions, had opened up a split among the circuit courts, as the 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuits had all ruled in favor of marriage equality claims during 2014, and the Supreme Court had refused on October 6 to review the rulings by the 4th, 7th and 10th Circuits.  (The 9th Circuit ruled was issued the day after the Supreme Court announced the three cert. denials, and only one of the two states involved in that case, Idaho, has filed cert. petitions, on which the Court has not taken action.) DeBoer v. Snyder, No. 14-571, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213650 (Jan. 16, 2015); Obergefell v. Hodges, No. 14-556, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213646 (Jan. 16, 2015); Tanco v. Haslam, No. 14-562, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213648 (Jan. 16, 2015); Bourke v. Beshear, No. 14-574, cert. granted, 2015 WL 213651 (Jan. 16, 2015).  Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., quickly announced that the Justice Department would file a brief with the Court urging reversal of the 6th Circuit.

The Court’s announcement of the cert. grant was accompanied by an announcement that the cases have been consolidated for the Court’s consideration, and that the grant was limited to the following two questions: (1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? (2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state?  The Court allotted 90 minutes for oral argument on Question 1 and 60 minutes for oral argument on Question 2.  Presumably these time allocations were made to assure that attorneys representing each of the four states involved – Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee – would have time to argue, and that representatives of each of the Petitioners would also have sufficient time.   Also, presumably, the questions were phrased this way and the argument divided into two parts because some of the cert. petitions address only marriage recognition, while others asked whether states are required to let same sex couples marry.

Three of the cases were decided on pretrial motions while the Michigan decision (DeBoer) followed a full trial on the merits, providing the Court with a trial record and detailed factual findings by the district court.  The Court limited the parties to briefing on the merits and presenting oral arguments on the questions presented in “their respective petitions.”  Thus the parties in the Ohio (Obergefell) and Tennessee (Tanco) cases will be arguing on Question 2, while the parties in the Michigan (DeBoer) case will address Question 1, and the parties in the Kentucky case (Bourke) case will be arguing on both questions.  Presumably the Court also scheduled a separate argument on the recognition question because it implicates some different doctrinal issues from the marriage argument.  Indeed, the recognition question could be decided by a straightforward extension of U.S. v. Windsor without ever addressing whether states are required to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, since the states are not really presenting significantly different arguments from those raised by the defenders of DOMA as reasons for the federal government to refuse to recognize same sex marriages.   The Court’s announcement did not specify how the time would be divided between the parties, but presumably Petitioners will get half the time and Respondents will get half the time and perhaps be left to work out among themselves how to allocate the time within their share.  Several LGBT litigation groups are among the attorneys representing Respondents.

The Court’s announcement included a tight briefing schedule calculated to get the case argued and decided before the end of the Supreme Court’s term in June.  Petitioners’ merits briefs are due by 2 pm on Friday, February 27, Respondents’ briefs by 2 p.m. on Friday, March 27, and all reply briefs by 2 p.m. on Friday, April 17.  Potential amici would be subject to the same tight briefing schedule.  The last scheduled argument date on the Court’s calendar for the October 2014 Term is April 29, 2015, so it seems likely the arguments will be held on April 27, 28 or 29, which would give the Court two months to settle on opinions if it wants to release them before the term ends.  According to the Court’s posted calendar, the last date for announcing decisions is June 29, but the Court has been known to extend the end of the term by a few days to dole out end-of-term opinions as they are ready.

The Court’s actions since October 6 may provide some insight in trying to forecast how the Court will ultimately rule.  After it denied certiorari in the cases from the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuits on October 6, the Court denied all subsequent motions from other states in those circuits to stay subsequent marriage equality rulings issued by district courts there.  The Court similarly denied all motions to stay district court rulings from states in the 9th Circuit after that circuit’s October 7 ruling.  Most significantly, the Court issued an order on December 19, denying a motion by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to stay a U.S. District Court marriage equality ruling in that state, pending the state’s appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.  That a majority of the Supreme Court was not willing to stay the Florida ruling, even though the case was yet to be decided by the 11th Circuit, spoke volumes about the likely outcome of its decision on the merits.  If a majority of the Court was not willing to stay the Florida ruling pending appeal, it seems likely that a majority of the Court is ready to rule on the merits in favor of marriage equality.  Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were announced as disagreeing with the Court’s denial of a stay.  Although it is always hazardous to predict what the Supreme Court will ultimately do on an issue as to which it is likely to be sharply divided, it is also likely that there will be some consistency between the Court’s actions on stay motions after October 6 and its final ruling.  It is worth noting that prior to October 6, the Court granted every stay motion presented by a state seeking to delay lower court marriage equality decisions pending appellate review.

Over two years ago, the Court announced in December 2012 that it would review a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down California’s Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment enacted by voter initiative in 2008 that banned the performance or recognition of same sex marriages in California.  At that time, the Court added a question to those posed by the defenders of Prop 8 in their petition for review of the lower court decision striking it down: whether the Petitioners had “standing” to appeal the original ruling by the district court in San Francisco?  As none of the California officials named as defendants in Perry v. Schwarzenegger was willing to defend Proposition 8 on the merits, the district court had allowed the proponents of the initiative to intervene, and it was they who were appealing the ruling.  During the oral argument in that case, titled Hollingsworth v. Perry, 133 S. Ct. 2652 (2013), some of the time was taken up by arguments about the Petitioner’s standing, but the remaining time was devoted to arguing the merits.  Those curious about the types of questions the Supreme Court justices might pose to attorneys on Question 1 in the DeBoer case can access the audio recording of the oral argument on the Supreme Court’s website.  (The oral argument in Hollingsworth did not focus on the recognition question.)

Based on the Hollingsworth oral argument, there were predictions that the Court might vote 5-4 to strike down Proposition 8, but ultimately the Court concluded, in an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., that the Petitioners did not have standing, thus leaving the district court’s ruling in place and effectively striking down Proposition 8 without a Supreme Court ruling on the merits, on June 26, 2013.  Same sex marriages resumed in the nation’s most populous state a few days later.  The dissenting opinion in Hollingsworth was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., who argued that the Court had erred in finding lack of standing but who carefully limited his opinion from expressing any view as to the constitutionality of Proposition 8.

Justice Kennedy was the author of the other momentous marriage equality decision issued on the same day, United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), in which the Court voted 5-4 to declare unconstitutional the federal definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act.  In common with Kennedy’s earlier gay rights opinions in Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas, his Windsor opinion was not ideally clear about its doctrinal grounding, never expressly stating that the case involved a fundamental right or a suspect classification, or merited heightened scrutiny, thus spawning a variety of views from legal commentators and lower court judges and the precedential meaning of the opinion.  The 9th Circuit construed Windsor to be a suspect classification case, and decreed “heightened scrutiny” as the standard to apply in subsequent equal protection cases brought by gay plaintiffs.  See Smithkline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories, 740 F.3d 471, motion for rehearing en banc denied, 759 F.3d 990 (9th Cir. 2014). On this basis the 9th Circuit subsequently struck down the Nevada and Idaho same sex marriage bans in Latta v. Otter, 771 F.3d 456 (9th Cir. 2014), motion for rehearing en banc denied, 2015 WL 128117 (Jan. 9, 2015), petitions for cert. pending.  Some other courts ducked these issues, instead striking down bans on same sex marriage by finding that none of the alleged justifications for the bans survived some form of rational basis review, or that the bans were products of unconstitutional animus.  Some commentators have suggested that Kennedy’s decision is most explicable as being based on his view that DOMA was an expression of animus against gay people by Congress.  Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting from the Court’s decision, argued, as he had in his Lawrence dissent ten years earlier, that the majority opinion would support claims for the right of same sex couples to marry, and many of the lower court decisions cited and quoted from one or both of his dissents in support of their conclusions.

The Windsor ruling led to an avalanche of marriage equality lawsuits in every state that did not allow same sex couples to marry. The avalanche of lawsuits soon turned into an avalanche of court opinions.  Within weeks of Windsor, the federal district court in Ohio had ordered preliminary relief in Obergefell v. Kasich, 2013 WL 3814262 (S.D. Ohio, July 22, 2013), a marriage recognition case, and in December the district court in Utah issued a ruling on the merits striking down that state’s same sex marriage ban in Kitchen v. Herbert, 961 F.Supp.2d 1181 (D. Utah, Dec. 20, 2013).  Dozens of district court rulings and rulings by four circuit courts of appeals followed during 2014, so that by the time the Court granted cert. to review the 6th Circuit decision on January 16, 2015, same sex couples could marry in 37 states and the District of Columbia.  (In two of those states, Kansas and Missouri, disputes about the scope of lower court rulings made marriage available only in certain counties while the litigation continued.) There were also marriage equality district court decisions pending on appeal before the 1st, 5th, 8th and 11th Circuits.  The only federal courts to have rejected marriage equality claims after Windsor were district courts in Louisiana and Puerto Rico and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the consolidated case from four states that the Supreme Court will review.  A week before granting cert. in the 6th Circuit case, the Court rejected an attempt by Lambda Legal to get direct review of the Louisiana decision, Robicheaux v. Caldwell, 2 F.Supp.3d 910 (E.D. La. 2014), cert. denied, 2015 WL 133500 (Jan. 12, 2015).  The Court denied that petition just days after the 5th Circuit heard oral arguments in that appeal as well as state appeals from marriage equality rulings in Texas and Mississippi.

The most pressing question presented by the cert. grant, of course, is whether the Court will use this case to declare a constitutional right to marry throughout the United States, and to have those marriages recognized wherever a married couple might travel or reside.  But to those following the course of gay rights in the courts, the question of what rationale the Court uses to decide the case will also be pressing, especially as the various circuit court decisions have adopted different theories that might have a different impact for litigation about other issues.  This case may also give the Court an opportunity to clarify the circumstances under which lower federal courts are bound to follow an old Supreme Court decision whose rationale appears to have been eroded by subsequent legal developments.

The 6th Circuit opinion by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton held that the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a constitutional challenge to Minnesota’s same-sex marriage ban in Baker v. Nelson, 409 U.S. 810 (1972), precluded a ruling for the plaintiffs, as the Supreme Court had never overruled or disavowed that decision, in which the Court had stated that the issue of same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question” with no further discussion or explanation.  That ruling was also cited by the Louisiana and Puerto Rico district courts in their rejection of marriage equality claims, and it played a prominent role in a lengthy dissenting opinion issued just a week earlier by 9th Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, protesting his court’s refusal to reconsider its marriage equality ruling as requested by Idaho Governor Butch Otter.  See Latta v. Otter, 2015 WL 128117 (Jan. 9, 2015).

The question of the continuing precedential authority of Baker v. Nelson came up during the oral argument at the Supreme Court in Hollingsworth, the Proposition 8 case, when counsel for the Prop 8 proponents argued that the district court should not have ruled on the merits in that case because of Baker.  At that time, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dismissed Baker’s significance, point out that when Baker was decided the Court had not yet issued its rulings holding that heightened scrutiny applied to sex discrimination claims.  Because the 6th Circuit put such weight on Baker v. Nelson, it is likely to be discussed again during the DeBoer argument, and might also be addressed in the Court’s subsequent opinion.

The 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th Circuits all held that Baker was no longer a binding precedent, noting that since 1972 the Court had expanded its view of the fundamental right to marry in a series of cases building on its historic 1967 decision striking down Virginia’s criminal law banning interracial marriages, Loving v Virginia; that it had struck down an anti-gay state constitutional amendment on an equal protection challenge in Romer v. Evans in 1996; that it had struck down anti-gay sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003; and, of course, that it had struck down as violating both due process and equal protection the federal ban on recognizing same sex marriages in Windsor in 2013. In light of all these developments, even though the Court had never expressly overruled Baker, it would be ludicrous to suggest that same sex marriage does not present a “substantial federal question” after June 26, 2013. Even the Court’s most outspoken opponent of gay rights, Justice Antonin Scalia, might conceded to that point, since his dissenting opinions in Lawrence v. Texas and U.S. v. Windsor both proclaimed that the rationale of the majority opinions in those cases would open up claims for same-sex marriage, rendering the Court’s ipse dixit in Baker irrelevant.  The Windsor majority opinion did not even mention Baker v. Nelson, which the court below, the 2nd Circuit, dismissed as not relevant to the questions presented in that case.

The courts that have rejected marriage equality claims relying on Baker have stressed that the Court’s summary dismissal in Baker followed by several years its ruling in Loving v. Virginia.  They argue that this makes clear that the fundamental right to marry, as identified in Loving, could not extend to same sex couples; if it did, they argued, the Court would not have dismissed the Baker appeal.  This argument treats Loving as entirely a race discrimination case, but it conveniently ignores the way Loving was expanded by the Supreme Court in subsequent cases, including Turner and Zablocki, which spoke broadly of the fundamental right to marry as transcending the narrow issue of procreation and didn’t turn on racial issues.

In the marriage equality decisions during 2014 from the 4th and 10th Circuits, Bostic v. Schaefer, 760 F.3d 352 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, sub nom Rainey v. Bostic, 135 S. Ct. 286 (Oct. 6, 2014), and Bishop v. Smith, 760 F.3d 1070 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 271 (Oct. 6, 2014), the courts held that same-sex couples were being deprived of a fundamental right to marry, and that the states had failed to show that they had compelling justifications for abridging that right.  Hedging their bets, these courts also found that the state’s justifications failed to meet rationality review.  A Supreme Court ruling on this ground would not disturb the Court’s continuing reluctance to find explicitly that sexual orientation is a suspect classification, which would raise a presumption of unconstitutionality every time the government adopts a policy that discriminates on that basis and would put the burden on the government to prove an important, even compelling, policy justification to defend its position.  On the other hand, the 7th and 9th Circuits, in Baskin v. Bogan, 766 F.3d 648 (7th Cir.), cert. denied sub nom. Bogan v. Baskin and Walker v. Wolf, 135 S.Ct. 316 (Oct. 06, 2014), and Latta v. Otter, 771 F.3d 456 (9th Cir. 2014), motion for rehearing en banc denied,  2015 WL 128117 (Jan. 9, 2015), premised their decisions on equal protection, with the 9th Circuit, in line with its earlier ruling in a jury selection case, holding that sexual orientation discrimination calls for heightened scrutiny and the 7th Circuit following a similar path without articulating the “suspect classification” terminology.  A Supreme Court ruling based on equal protection that overtly applies heightened scrutiny would have a more far-reaching effect in other gay rights cases outside the marriage issue, which is why it seems more likely that the Court would take the due process route, or, as some argue that Justice Kennedy did in Windsor, attribute the same-sex marriage bans to unconstitutional animus and avoid any overt expression as to the other doctrinal issues.  The Court might be leery about reaffirming too broad a fundamental marriage right, for fear that it would put in play constitutional challenges to laws penalizing polygamy, adultery, and incest (as Scalia argued in his Lawrence dissent).  A ruling premised on finding animus as the prima motivator of same sex marriage bans would end the bans without necessarily altering Supreme Court doctrine applicable to any other gay-related or marriage-related issues that might come before the Court.

Most predictions about how the Court may rule presume that the Windsor majority will hold together and that the Windsor dissenters would dissent.  That would make Justice Kennedy the senior member of the majority who would likely assign the opinion to himself, as he did in Windsor.  (Now-retired Justice John Paul Stevens was the senior justice in the majority in Romer and Lawrence and assigned those opinions to Justice Kennedy, who returned the favor in Lawrence by prominently citing and quoting from Stevens’ dissenting opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick.)  Nobody is predicting that Justices Scalia, Thomas or Samuel Alito would abandon their dissenting votes in Windsor to join a marriage-equality majority, so they are unlikely to have any role in determining the Court’s doctrinal path in the case.  Indeed, Judge Sutton’s opinion for the 6th Circuit defiantly embraced the “originalism” approach advocated by Justices Scalia and Thomas for construing the 14th Amendment (an approach never endorsed by a majority of the Court), under which a claim for marriage equality would founder on the argument that the mid-19th century framers of that amendment could not possibly have intended or understood that its provisions would require states to license marriages by same sex couples.  Justice Kennedy, whose opinions in Lawrence and Windsor clearly disavowed an originalist approach to interpreting the scope of liberty protected by the due process clause, would never agree to these arguments.   However, there has been speculation that Chief Justice Roberts might join the majority, which would give him control of the opinion assignment.  In that case, one might expect a narrowly-focused opinion intended to keep together a doctrinally diverse majority of the Court, and intended to have as little effect on other cases as possible.

In the wake of the cert. grant, several media commentators tried to find particular significance in the Court’s wording of the questions and division of the argument, suggesting that the majority of the Court might have a plan to rule for the Petitioners on marriage recognition while ruling for the Respondents on the question whether states must license same sex marriages.  Such an approach was floated by 5th Circuit Judge James Graves in his questioning on January 9 during oral arguments of the appeals from Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, but strongly refuted by counsel for the plaintiffs in those cases.  One suspects that the 5th Circuit may hold off on issuing a ruling now that the Supreme Court has granted cert. to decide these questions, in which case we may never find out whether Judge Graves is committed to that course.  However, in light of the procedural and substantive posture of the cert. petitions coming up from four different states, the Court’s organization of the questions and division of the argument appears more a logical response to a complicated appellate situation than a strategic move to produce a “split the baby” decision.

Michigan may be the next state to defend its ban on same-sex marriage in a federal court trial.

Posted on: July 2nd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Senior U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman, appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, ruled on July 1 that a Michigan lesbian couple is entitled to a trial of their claim that the state adoption law, forbidding same-sex couples to jointly adopt children, and the Michigan Marriage Amendment (MMA), forbidding same-sex marriages, violate their rights under the 14th Amendment.  Rejecting the state’s motion to dismiss the case, Judge Friedman cited the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, U.S. v. Windsor, to support the “plausibility” of the couple’s constitutional claim.

April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, the plaintiffs, are both employed as nurses and have lived together for six years.  Between them, they have adopted three children as single parents.  They would like to jointly adopt the three children to solidify their family relationship, but Michigan’s adoption law forbids it because they are not married, and the Michigan Marriage Amendment denies them the right to marry.

They filed suit in federal court, claiming that the state’s prohibition on joint adoptions by same-sex couples violates their equal protection rights.  In pre-trial arguments, Judge Friedman suggested that their challenge would not be complete if it was confined to the adoption law, and they amended their complaint at his suggestion to add a claim that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates their rights as well. 

The state moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiffs cannot show that the Michigan Marriage Amendment lacks a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest, and that there is no fundamental right under the constitution for same-sex couples to marry.

Friedman denied the motion, holding that the claims cannot be decided as a matter of law at this point, largely because of the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision.

On the one hand, he observed, there is language in that decision that defendants will cite, about the state’s “historic and essential authority to define the marital relation” (quoting from Justice Kennedy’s opinion).  “They will couch the popular referendum that resulted in the passage of the MMA as ‘a proper exercise of [the state’s] sovereign authority within our federal system, all in the way that the Framers of the Constitution intended,” he wrote, again quoting from Kennedy’s opinion.

On the other hand, of course, he asserted that “plaintiffs are prepared to claim Windsor as their own; their briefs sure to be replete with references to the newly enthroned triumvirate of Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, and now Windsor.  And why shouldn’t they?  The Supreme Court has just invalidated a federal statute on equal protection grounds because it ‘place[d] same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.’  Moreover, and of particular importance to this case, the justices expressed concern that the natural consequence of such discriminatory legislation would not only lead to the relegation of same-sex relationships to a form of second-tier status, but impair the rights of ‘tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples’ as well.  This is exactly the type of harm plaintiffs seek to remedy in this case.”

The court’s role in deciding a motion to dismiss is to decide whether the plaintiffs have asserted a plausible legal claim, assuming their factual allegations to be true.  “Construing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, and in view of the Supreme Court’s current statement of the law, this Court cannot say that plaintiffs’ claims for relief are without plausibility,” Friedman concluded as to the equal protection claim.  He commented that the plaintiffs’ due process claim “will likewise move forward because it states a plausible claim for relief,” citing Judge Vaughn Walker’s original Proposition 8 decision, which now stands as an unappealed district court opinion.

Friedman ordered that counsel meet with him on July 10 to set a trial date.  From the tone of his opinion, he is eager to decide this case on the merits, and seems well disposed towards the plaintiffs’ claims.