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….