U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican appointed to the federal district court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, by President George W. Bush in 2002, ruled on May 20 in Whitewood v. Wolf that Pennsylvania’s statutes banning same-sex marriages in the state or recognition of same-sex marriages formed outside the state violate the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. Judge Jones issued an order declaring both statutes unconstitutional and permanently enjoining the state from enforcing them. Neither his opinion nor his order mentioned any stay, but it seemed likely that Governor Tom Corbett would seek a stay, first from Judge Jones and then, if one was not forthcoming, from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Philadelphia. But Governor Corbett surprised everybody by waiting one day and then announcing he would not appeal the ruling, making Pennsylvania the 19th marriage equality state. Meanwhile, shortly after Judge Jones’s ruling was announced, same-sex couples began getting marriage licenses.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed this lawsuit last July on behalf of what Judge Jones described as “eleven courageous lesbian and gay couples, one widow, and two teenage children of one of the aforesaid couples.” Some of the couples are seeking marriage licenses, others are seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriages, the teenagers complain about the deprivations they suffer from their parents not being married, and the widow, who married her late partner out of state, complains about not being recognized as a surviving spouse. One of the state’s defenses to this lawsuit was that the plaintiffs had failed to show any injury for the court to redress, a nonsensical position that Judge Jones dispatched efficiently. He found that the “stigmatizing harms” imposed by the statutes, which were passed in 1996 in response to a marriage equality lawsuit in Hawaii, were “cognizable” as a matter of law, and, additionally, that “plaintiffs suffer a multitude of daily harms, for instance, in the areas of child-rearing, healthcare, taxation, and end-of-life planning.” The state’s other main defense was that this case is precluded by the Supreme Court’s 1972 Baker v. Nelson ruling that the issue of same-sex marriage did not raise a “substantial federal question.” All of the recent marriage equality decisions have rejected this argument, pointing to the significant developments in American constitutional law since 1972, not least last year’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, to conclude that exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage now presents a very substantial federal question.
Judge Jones found the Pennsylvania statutes unconstitutional on two separate constitutional theories: due process and equal protection.
The due process theory rests on Supreme Court decisions finding that the “right to marry” is a fundamental right, guaranteed to each individual. Judge Jones rejected the state’s argument that because “the United States Supreme Court has never recognized that the fundamental right to marry includes the right to marry a person of one’s choice,” the state’s marriage laws did not violate the plaintiffs’ due process rights. After briefly summarizing the Supreme Court’s important marriage decisions, Judge Jones wrote, “this Court is not only moved by the logic that the fundamental right to marry is a personal right to be exercised by the individual, but also rejects Defendants’ contention that concepts of history and tradition dictate that same-sex marriage is excluded from the fundamental right to marry. The right Plaintiffs seek to exercise is not a new right,” he continued, “but is rather a right that these individuals have always been guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” He went on to find that this right encompassed both the right to marry and the right to remain married after crossing a state line, so the due process theory served to invalidate both Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage and its ban on recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages.
Turning to equal protection, the judge noted that one branch of equal protection jurisprudence would apply strict scrutiny to any law that discriminates regarding a fundamental right, and nobody contends that same-sex marriage bans would survive such strict scrutiny. However, setting that issue aside, he proceeded to analyze whether discrimination because of sexual orientation requires heightened scrutiny. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has never ruled on the question, and neither has the Supreme Court, at least directly. Judge Jones noted that several of the other courts that have issued marriage equality rulings, in addition to the 9th Circuit in a recent jury selection case, have held that heightened scrutiny is appropriate for sexual orientation claims, and that a review of the Supreme Court’s gay rights decisions suggests that the Court has been using a more demanding standard of judicial review than the traditional deferential rational basis test. After reviewing the factors that courts generally consider in deciding whether a particular form of discrimination is subject to heightened scrutiny review, Jones concluded that this was the appropriate level of review.
Consequently, presuming the ban to be unconstitutional, Jones considered whether there was an “important governmental objective” to support the ban. Since the state had been arguing in support of using the deferential rational basis test, its arguments fell quite short. Jones identified “promotion of procreation, child-rearing and the well-being of children” and “tradition” as the only interests the state was proposing. “Significantly,” he wrote, “Defendants claim only that the objectives are ‘legitimate,’ advancing no argument that the interests are ‘important’ state interests as required to withstand heightened scrutiny. Also, Defendants do not explain the relationship between the classification and the governmental objectives served; much less do they provide an exceedingly persuasive justification. In essence, Defendants argue within the framework of deferential review and go no further. Indeed, it is unsurprising that Defendants muster no argument engaging the strictures of heightened scrutiny, as we, too, are unable to fathom an ingenuous defense saving the Marriage Laws from being invalidated under this more-searching standard.”
Like the other trial judges ruling in marriage equality cases over the past several months, Judge Jones rose to an eloquent conclusion. “The issue we resolve today is a divisive one,” he wrote. “Some of our citizens are made deeply uncomfortable by the notion of same-sex marriage. However, that same-sex marriage causes discomfort in some does not makes its prohibition constitutional. Nor can past tradition trump the bedrock constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. Were that not so, ours would still be a racially segregated nation according to the now rightfully discarded doctrine of ‘separate but equal.'” After citing the Supreme Court’s key ruling against racial segregation, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), he continued, “In the sixty years since Brown was decided, ‘separate’ has thankfully faded into history, and only ‘equal’ remains. Similarly, in future generations the label same-sex marriage will be abandoned, to be replaced simply by marriage. We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”
Pennsylvania’s marriage statutes require a three-day process to apply for and receive a marriage license. Thus, unless individual couples can secure some sort of waiver of this waiting period, it is possible that speedy action by the state to obtain a stay could avoid what happened in Utah, Arkansas and Michigan, where same-sex marriages took place before the state was able to secure a stay pending appeal. In those states, one could apply for a license, obtain it immediately, and then quickly have a marriage ceremony, but Pennsylvania’s laws do not routinely provide such speed. Judge Jones’ decision to issue his opinion on a Tuesday, rather than right before a weekend, made it more likely that the state might secure a stay before marriages could take place.
Taking together both the rulings on the right to marry and those rulings that just dealt with marriage recognition, Judge Jones’s decision was the fourteenth consecutive ruling by a state or federal court since last June’s U.S. Supreme Court DOMA decision to rule in favor of LGB plaintiffs seeking marriage rights or recognition. Since then no court has rejected such a claim, although many of the trial court decisions are “on hold” due to stays pending appeal. In New Mexico and New Jersey, the states’ highest courts last year agreed with their trial courts, and in Oregon, yesterday, where the state signified in advance that it would not appeal a marriage equality ruling, same-sex marriages could quickly begin taking place. Each new decision now cites the lengthening list of prior decisions, the sheer weight of which is building to a daunting body of precedent, even though viewed individually trial court rulings may have little precedential weight. We still await the first federal appellate ruling that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees to gay people the same individual right to marry the partner of their choice. The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 10th Circuit (in Denver) and the 4th Circuit (in Richmond) have heard arguments on cases arising from Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, and other circuits will hear arguments soon from other states. While there may be more federal trial court decisions in the months ahead, with scores of cases pending in all but three of the remaining states that ban same-sex marriage, the next truly significant development will be the first court of appeals ruling, which could come at any time.
Note added a few hours after posting this: Judges can grant individual waivers of the three-day waiting period, and I understand that some judges have already granted waivers and licenses have been issued to some couples. So no matter how fast the state is in requesting a stay, some couples will be getting married before that can happen.