On November 25, 2014, U.S. district court judges in Arkansas and Mississippi issued rulings declaring unconstitutional the constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage in those states. In Arkansas, District Judge Kristine G. Baker stayed her ruling pending an appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals by the state, but the situation was complicated by another marriage equality case pending before the state’s Supreme Court, which may render this ruling superfluous depending on timing. In addition, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat who personally supports same-sex marriage but who had claimed to be defending the ban as his duty, indicated that he would confer over the Thanksgiving holiday with the incoming Republican Attorney General, Leslie Rutlage, an opponent of same-sex marriage, before deciding whether to appeal. In Mississippi, District Judge Carlton W. Reeves granted the state a two-week stay during which it may seek a further stay pending appeal from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where marriage equality cases from Texas and Louisiana are scheduled for argument on January 9. There was little doubt that the state would immediately seek a stay from the 5th Circuit.
Both of the judges who ruled on November 25 were appointed by President Barack Obama and seated during his first term of office, Judge Reeves in 2010 and Judge Baker in 2012.
Although dozens of federal district judges have issued rulings in similar cases over the past year, neither of these judges skimped on their opinions, exploring both procedural and substantive issues in depth, as their opinions will likely be appealed to circuit courts that have yet to weigh in on the questions presented. Both judges were undeterred by the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, rejecting challenges to the marriage bans in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky. Both judges were not persuaded by 6th Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s reliance on the Supreme Court’s 1972 summary affirmance of negative ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court as a currently binding precedent, finding that it had been superseded by more recent developments in the Supreme Court, and emphasizing that the overwhelming majority of federal courts considering this issue over the past year have found Baker to be no impediment to striking down the bans.
Both judges were writing their opinions against the obstacles of circuit court rulings that preluded certain doctrinal moves. In the 8th Circuit, a 2006 decision rejecting a challenge to Nebraska’s constitutional amendment included language indicating that the court believed the amendment would survive rational basis review, which that court deemed the appropriate standard for evaluating claims of sexual orientation discrimination. Undeterred, Judge Baker followed the lead of 9th Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon, whose concurring opinion in the Nevada/Idaho marriage ruling of October 7 argued that bans on same-sex marriage are a form of sex discrimination, and thus merit heightened scrutiny. In the 5th Circuit, prior precedents also reject heightened scrutiny for sexual orientation discrimination claims. This did not deter Judge Reeves, who found that the Mississippi marriage ban fails even the usually deferential rational basis test.
Both judges also ruled against the same-sex marriage bans under an alternative Due Process theory, finding that Supreme Court precedents recognize a fundamental constitutional right to marry as an individual right of every citizen, subjecting to strict scrutiny any attempt by the state to interfere with the choice of marital partner. A law that does not survive rational basis review or heightened scrutiny cannot, by definition, survive strict scrutiny, the most demanding level of judicial review.
Both judges were also careful to address various procedural and jurisdictional arguments raised by the state defendants, systematically and respectfully analyzing and then rejecting them. Judge Baker confronted a particularly complicated argument, as the Arkansas Supreme Court held oral arguments less than a week earlier in the state’s appeal of a trial judge’s marriage equality ruling from earlier in 2014, and there is some argument that federal courts should abstain from deciding issues that are pending in the state courts. Judge Baker demonstrated that there were distinctions between the cases that counseled against federal court abstention, not least that the plaintiffs in the federal case were not participating in the state case. Both judges emphasized the duty of federal courts to deal with federal constitutional claims when they are appropriately presented by plaintiffs have meet the standing requirements.
The plaintiffs in the Arkansas case had presented Judge Baker with a panoply of constitutional arguments, and she carefully picked among them, rejecting — as have some other judges in recent decisions — the argument that the state’s failure to recognize marriages contracted out of state violates the constitutional right to travel between the states, as well as rejecting the plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim. However, she found that while the plaintiffs had met all the tests required to obtain an injunction against the state, the Supreme Court’s issuance of a stay in January in the Utah case set the path for her response to the state’s request in this case to keep the ruling from going into effect while the state appeals. However, she wrote, “If no timely notice of appeal is filed, this injunction shall take immediate effect upon the expiration of the time for filing a notice of appeal.”
Judge Reeves’ decision was substantially longer than Judge Baker’s, because he decided, despite 5th Circuit precedent, to take on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims should be subjected to heightened or strict scrutiny. One suspects this was a reaction to extraordinary briefing on the question provided by the plaintiffs and their amici. As a result, Reeves’ opinion includes within it a virtual monograph on the history of anti-gay discrimination in Mississippi, leading him to explicitly counter the suggestion by some judges that gay marriage litigants don’t need the assistance of the federal courts since they can obtain the right to marry through the ordinary political process. While that might be possible someday in Michigan, for example, wrote Reeves, it seemed unlikely in Mississippi.
“A common argument against homosexual equality is that the gay and lesbian community is so popular that it needs no judicial protection from the will of the majority,” wrote Reeves. “In this vein, the U.S. District Court for Nevada, which upheld that state’s same-sex marriage ban until the Ninth Circuit reversed, found that ‘the public media are flooded with editorial, commercial, and artistic messages urging the acceptance of homosexuals.’ He noted that the President now supports same-sex marriage. But pointing to statements of popular support, those of individual politicians, or even the national ‘climate’ is not the standard. The standard is whether homosexuals in Mississippi have ‘the strength to politically protect themselves from wrongful discrimination.’ Much of that discrimination, of course, happens at the state and local levels, far from celebrities and national politicians. On this question, it can only be concluded the Mississippi’s gay and lesbian community does not have the requisite political strength to protect itself from wrongful discrimination.” He noted particularly that the Mississippi anti-gay marriage amendment passed by the largest margin of any of the numerous such measures that appeared on state ballots in 2004, as well as the recent enactment of a measure that “was perceived to condone sexual orientation discrimination” by allowing businesses to deny their services based on the owners’ religious objections.
Thus, argued Reeves, if he were free from binding 5th Circuit precedent, he would apply heightened scrutiny to the plaintiffs’ sexual orientation claim, and he suggested that the 5th Circuit should reconsider its precedent. He would not take the alternative approach of treating this as a sex discrimination case in order to apply heightened scrutiny because, as he pointed out, it was unnecessary to do so. He was invalidating the ban using strict scrutiny under the Due Process Clause, and he also found that none of the state’s articulated justifications for the ban even met the less demanding rational basis test for an Equal Protection analysis.
Both Reeves and Baker, countering contentions by the state that U.S. v. Windsor was a federalism ruling that support the state’s right to ban same-sex marriages, invoked Justice Scalia’s dissents in Windsor and Lawrence v. Texas, in which one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court asserted that the reasoning of the Court in those cases would create an argument in support of a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.
“Today’s decision may cause uneasiness and concern about the change it will bring,” he concluded. “But ‘things change, people change, times change, and Mississippi changes, too,” he wrote, quoting the former segregationist governor, Ross R. Barnett, Jr., who he commented “knew firsthand” the truth of these words. “Mississippi continues to change in ways its people could not anticipate even 10 years ago,” when the marriage amendment was passed. “Allowing same-sex couples to marry, however, presents no harm to anyone. At the very least, it has the potential to support families and provide stability for children. This court joints the vast majority of federal courts to conclude that same-sex couples and the children they raise are equal before the law. The State of Mississippi cannot deny them the marriage rights and responsibilities it holds out to opposite-sex couples and their children. Mississippi’s statute and constitutional amendment violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Lead counsel for plaintiffs in the Mississippi case is Roberta Kaplan of New York’s Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, who represented Edith Windsor in her successful challenge to Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Jack Wagoner, a Little Rock attorney, is lead counsel in the Arkansas case.