[Second draft of history. My prior posting on this week’s ruling in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases was written shortly after the opinion was release, and was intended as a basis for my journalistic comment to be published in Gay City News that day. Herewith my more extensive draft, reflecting further thought and containing many more quotes from the Court’s opinion, written two days later. And amended after a few hours to reflect some startling new developments today.]
On June 26, the last decision day of its October 2012 Term, the United States Supreme Court issued a pair of 5-4 rulings, holding unconstitutional Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and thus requiring the federal government to treat lawfully-contracted same-sex marriages as equal to different-sex marriages for purposes of federal law, and rejecting an appeal by initiative proponents of a federal trial court decision invalidating California Proposition 8 of 2008, setting the stage for the resumption of same-sex marriages in that state. United States v. Windsor, 2013 WL 3196928; Hollingsworth v. Perry, 2013 WL 3196927.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., writing for the Court in Windsor, found that Section 3 of DOMA, which required the federal government to deny legal recognition to same-sex marriages validly contracted by the law of the jurisdiction where they took place, violates the 5th Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protection. Chief Justice John R. Roberts, Jr., writing for the Court in Hollingsworth, found that the initiative proponents lacked standing to appeal the trial court’s decision, leaving both the Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit without jurisdiction to rule on the merits of the case. The Court vacated the 9th Circuit’s decision (which had affirmed the trial court’s broad due process and equality ruling on a narrower equal protection theory), and ordered that the appeal be dismissed, which would logically result in terminating the 9th Circuit’s stay of the trial court’s Order, which had enjoined state officials from enforcing the constitutional amendment enacted by Prop 8. At the request of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the 9th Circuit panel dissolved the stay on Friday, and the plaintiff couples promptly got married; in San Francisco, Attorney General Harris officiated for the wedding of Kris Perry and Sandy Stier at City Hall; in Los Angeles, outgoing Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa officiated at the wedding of Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo.
The line-up of justices in Windsor was predictable, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, all appointees of Democratic presidents and sometimes referred to as the Court’s “liberal wing,” signing Kennedy’s opinion. There were three dissenting opinions. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for himself; Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for himself and Justice Clarence Thomas, with partial joinder by the Chief; and Justice Samuel Alito, writing for himself with partial joinder by Justice Thomas. Roberts, Scalia and Thomas agreed on the proposition that the case was not properly before the Court, because the Petitioner, the United States, did not disagree with the substance of the 2nd Circuit’s opinion holding Section 3 unconstitutional. Thus, in their view, the case did not present the Court with a real “controversy” to resolve between the government and Plaintiff-Respondent Edith Schlain (“Edie”) Windsor, as the government was not asking the Court to do other than affirm the decision below. Evidently none of these three justices considered that the presence in the case of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives (BLAG), which was allowed to intervene to defend Section 3, would cure this jurisdictional fault. Justice Alito, by contrast, opined that BLAG’s participation as an interested party cured the jurisdictional defect, arguing that BLAG as representative of the House of Representatives (pursuant to a resolution adopted by the House in January 2013, a month after the Court granted the petition for certiorari in this case), had a real interest in the resolution of the case, since the lower court’s opinion had invalidated legislation enacted by the House, thus in effect constricting its authority to pass legislation. Although Roberts, Scalia and Thomas believed the case was not properly before the Court, this did not stop them from pronouncing on the merits, all agreeing that Section 3 was constitutional. Justice Alito also opined that Section 3 was constitutional, but on somewhat different grounds. The Chief Justice signed on to the portion of Scalia’s dissent addressing jurisdiction, and Thomas, who signed on to Scalia’s entire dissent, also signed on to the portion of Alito’s dissent addressing the merits.
The line-up of justices in Hollingsworth was less predictable, and initially puzzling to many. The Chief Justice’s opinion was joined by Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan, while Justice Kennedy’s dissent was joined by Justices Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor. Roberts’ opinion for the Court insisted that in order to have Article III standing, an appellant must show that the lower court’s ruling imposes a personal and tangible harm on him, rejecting the alternative argument that the initiative proponents were suing in a representative capacity on behalf of the state of California. There were no concurring opinions. Justice Kennedy argued in dissent that the California Supreme Court’s decision, entitled to binding effect as an authoritative construction of California law, provided a basis for finding that the initiative proponents had standing to sue on behalf of the state as crucial to the “integrity” of the state’s initiative process. Neither Roberts nor Kennedy said anything in their opinions about the merits of the case. Indeed, the only member of the Court to give even an oblique discussion to the Prop 8 merits was Justice Alito, in his dissent in Windsor, in which he devoted a lengthy textual footnote to ridiculing the fact finding process of the district court in Hollingsworth.
Justice Kennedy’s decision first took on the jurisdictional issue, acknowledging the unusual posture of the case, in which the Petitioner (the United States represented by the Solicitor General) was asking the Court to affirm the decision below. This led the court to appoint as amicus curiae Prof. Vicki Jackson of Harvard Law School to argue against jurisdiction, since none of the “parties” would make such an argument. Ultimately, Kennedy concluded that the United States had standing to appeal the 2nd Circuit’s decision because of the government’s commitment to continue enforcing Section 3 unless and until there was a definitive ruling by the federal courts as to its constitutionality.
The case began when the Internal Revenue Service, relying on Section 3, refused to allow Edith Windsor to use the marital exemption to avoid paying taxes on her inheritance from her wife, Thea Spyer, who died in 2009 in New York City after New York State courts had begun to recognize same-sex marriages contracted elsewhere. (Windsor and Spyer married in Canada after having been a couple for over forty years. New York subsequently adopted marriage equality legislatively in 2011.) Because of the Obama Administration’s determination that it should continue enforcing Section 3, despite the conclusion by Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama that the provision was unconstitutional, the government would not comply with the lower courts’ orders to refund Windsor’s $363,000 tax payment on her inheritance. Thus, something tangible with respect to the parties turns on the Court’s decision in this case; either Windsor gets her refund or she doesn’t. This was enough, in Kennedy’s view, to satisfy Article III’s standing requirement for the government. For Scalia, it was a “contrivance” intended to manufacture an opportunity for the Court to rule on the constitutionality of Section 3.
Further, Kennedy found, the government had a very legitimate and direct interest in getting a definitive national precedent on Section 3, in light of the 1st Circuit’s previous ruling finding it unconstitutional. Beyond meeting the requirements of Article III, the case would also have to meet the Court’s jurisprudence on when it might be “prudential” for the Court to abstain from deciding a case. In the absence of a ruling on Section 3, he pointed out, “The district courts in 94 districts throughout the Nation would be without precedential guidance not only in tax refund suits but also in cases involving the whole of DOMA’s sweep involving over 1,000 federal statutes and a myriad of federal regulations. . . Rights and privileges of hundreds of thousands of persons would be adversely affected, pending a case in which all prudential concerns about justiciability are absent. That numerical prediction may not be certain, but it is certain that the cost in judicial resources and expense of litigation for all persons adversely affected would be immense.” It was clear that Justice Kennedy was persuaded by the practical problem faced by married same-sex couples and the government, were a ruling on the constitutionality of Section 3 to be further delayed. “In these unusual and urgent circumstances,” he wrote, “the very term ‘prudential’ counsels that it is a proper exercise of the Court’s responsibility to take jurisdiction.”
Scalia decisively rejected these holdings, claiming that one could scour the U.S. Reports and never find a case in which the Court had asserted jurisdiction at the behest of a Petitioner who was asking the Court merely to affirm the holding of the court of appeals. He observed that “the plaintiff and the Government agree entirely on what should happen in this lawsuit. They agree that the court below got it right; and they agreed in the court below that the court below that one got it right as well. What, then are we doing here?” He characterized as “jaw-dropping” Kennedy’s assertion that the role of the Court was to say “what the law is” in the sense that the famous quotation of Chief Justice John Marshall used by Kennedy was presented in the majority opinion. Scalia asserted that the Supreme Court operates to decide actual cases, incidentally deciding questions of law as required to determine the rights of the parties in a particular case, and that the Court does not have a general jurisdiction to decide “what the law is” in the absence of an actual controversy between the parties. He chided Kennedy (an internationalist with a penchant for citing foreign precedents, to Scalia’s continued dismay) for mistaking the function of American courts for those of some other countries, citing as an example a treatise on the German constitutional court.
Kennedy’s approach to the merits of the case strikingly resembled his approach to the two earlier major gay rights opinions he wrote: Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003). In both of those cases, Kennedy eschewed the terminology that legal commentators, some justices, and many lower court judges have adopted to describe the process of judicial review, such as “strict scrutiny,” “heightened scrutiny,” “rational basis” and “suspect classification.” He was true to form here, writing a decision that never employs this terminology and thus leaves it open to commentators and later courts to try to determine its doctrinal significance.
Kennedy began his discussion of the merits with an extensive exposition of the traditional role of the states in deciding who could marry, and the traditional deference to state decisions on marriage by the federal government, as part of the allocation of roles in our federal system. For several pages of his opinion, it appeared that he was ruling that Section 3 violates the allocation of authority between federal and state governments by overriding the determination of particular states that same-sex couples should be entitled to the same “status” and “dignity” as different-sex couples have in their marriages. “DOMA rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next. Despite these considerations,” he continues, “it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance.” But, Kennedy says, quoting his opinion in Romer, “discriminations of an unusual character especially suggest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision.” In other words, Kennedy will not rest his decision on federalism, but will refer to Congress’s unusual “intrusion” into a traditional state function to justify a more demanding level of judicial review than might otherwise be applied in this case as part of his 5th Amendment analysis.
“The States’ interest in defining and regulating the marital relation, subject to constitutional guarantees, stems from the understanding that marriage is more than a routine classification for purposes of certain statutory benefits,” he explained. “Private, consensual sexual intimacy between two adult persons of the same sex may not be punished by the State, and it can form ‘but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring,’” quoting his own opinion in Lawrence. “By its recognition of the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions and then by authorizing same-sex unions and same-sex marriages, New York sought to give further protection and dignity to that bond.” But, he points out, “DOMA seeks to injure the very class New York seeks to protect. By doing so it violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” Thus, Kennedy cited as the constitutional basis for the ruling both aspects of the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment, the substantive due process and the equal protection guarantees that prior Supreme Court decisions have found to inhere in that provision. “DOMA’s unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage here operates to deprive same-sex couples of the benefits and responsibilities that come with the federal recognition of their marriages. This is strong evidence of a law having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class. The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”
Thus, for Kennedy, this case was very closely analogous to Romer, where he found that Colorado voters enacted Amendment 2 to make gay people unequal to everybody else, without any plausible legitimate justification. In this case, after reviewing the blatantly homophobic legislative history of DOMA’s enactment in 1996, he found a similar fatal flaw. “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code,” he exclaims. “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like government efficiency. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities. By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects (citing Lawrence) and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify.” He also found that it “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”
So the analogy with Romer is very close; Colorado enacted Amendment 2 to make gay people unequal to others without any policy justification, and Congress enacted Section 3 to make gay peoples’ marriages unequal to those of others without any policy justification. Interestingly, Kennedy omitted to discuss the specific policy justifications that BLAG advanced in its brief and oral argument, a failure that earned the scorn of Justice Scalia in his impassioned dissent. Having found that “the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” Kennedy concluded, “This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the 5th Amendment of the Constitution.” He went on to explain that this is a deprivation both of liberty and of equal protection of the laws, as that concept has been found by the Court to be an essential part of the Due Process guarantee. Early in the opinion, Kennedy made clear that all his references to “DOMA” refer only to Section 3, as the Court was not asked to rule on Section 2, the provision that purports to free states from any constitutional obligation to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states.
Kennedy ended with a final statement that the opinion “and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages,” i.e., “same-sex marriages made lawful by the State.” Without expressly discussing whether the federal government is obligated to recognize same-sex marriage of individuals who reside in states that do not recognize such marriages, Kennedy’s closing paragraph creates some ambiguity on a very important point, since this decision, by its silence, leaves to the Executive Branch the task of figuring out how to implement federal laws and regulations without clear guidance. Kennedy’s opinion might be read to restrict the federal obligation to recognizing marriages that are recognized by the state in which a couple resides, but it might alternatively be read to require the federal government to recognize lawfully contracted marriages regardless of where the couple happen to be when the issue arises. The more expansive reading makes more sense, and seems consistent with the overall rhetorical stance of Kennedy’s opinion, but the history of subsequent reception of %Romer% and Lawrence shows Kennedy’s brand of inscrutable opinion-writing can give rise to contradictory views as to the precise holding of the Court.
Shortly after the opinion was announced, President Obama embraced the more expansive obligation of recognizing lawful marriages regardless of the couples’ residence, but emphasized that he was talking “as a president, not a lawyer,” and that it would be up to the Attorney General, working in concert with other department heads (and perhaps ultimately the federal courts), to sort this out. Some department heads were quick on the draw. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel quickly indicated that the Defense Department would recognize lawful same-sex marriages for purposes of military benefits regardless of residence, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano chimed in similarly as to immigration issues administered by her department, including recognition of married bi-national couples for purposes of residency and citizenship applications. The Office of Personnel Management for the federal government quickly fell into line, sending a notice to federal agencies on Friday that same-sex spouses of federal employees are now eligible for benefits coverage, retroactive to June 26, and establishing special open enrollment periods to get them signed up for benefits. But it was less clear how this issue would be resolve for purposes of federal taxes, Social Security, and other programs that have traditionally relied on the place of residence in determining whether a couple is married. The Internal Revenue Service issued a statement, saying that it would issue formal guidance as soon as possible, but without tipping its hand, setting off lots of speculation without hard data.
Chief Justice Roberts’ dissenting opinion, after briefly stating agreement with Scalia’s view on jurisdiction, was devoted to attempting to cabin the impact of the decision by striving to characterize it as a “federalism” decision that would be of no relevance to the question whether same-sex couples have a right to marry under the 14th Amendment. “The Court does not have before it,” he wrote, “and the logic of its opinion does not decide, the distinct question whether the States, in the exercise of their ‘historic and essential authority to define the marital relation,’ may continue to utilize the traditional definition of marriage.” And it is accurate to say that Kennedy made clear that the Court was not addressing that question. Nonetheless, virtually ignoring Kennedy’s 5th Amendment analysis and ultimate statement that Section 3 violates the 5th Amendment while expressly eschewing a decision based on federalism, Roberts asserted: “The dominant theme of the majority opinion is that the Federal Government’s intrusion into an area ‘central to state domestic relations law applicable to its residents and citizens’ is sufficiently ‘unusual’ to set off alarm bells. I think that the majority goes off course, as I have said, but it is undeniable that its judgment is based on federalism.” If that were the case, of course, the decision might be seen as having little relevance to the question whether states can deny gay people the right to marry.
But Justice Scalia emphatically disagreed, which explains why the Chief did not join that portion of his dissent devoted to the merits. Characterizing Kennedy’s holding on the merits as “rootless and shifting” in terms of its “justifications,” he said, “For example, the opinion starts with seven full pages about the traditional power of States to define domestic relations – initially fooling many readers, I am sure, into thinking that this is a federalism opinion.” One of those fooled, evidently, was the Chief Justice, unless, as seems more likely, his puzzlement was more strategic than real. But, said Scalia, although Kennedy’s opinion continues to refer to federalism from time to time as part of its 5th Amendment analysis, the frequent references to equality and liberty make this a 5th Amendment case.
However, Scalia complains, “if this is meant to be an equal-protection opinion, it is a confusing one. The opinion does not resolve and indeed does not even mention what had been the central question in this litigation: whether, under the Equal Protection Clause, laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman are reviewed for more than mere rationality.” Scalia said that he would “review this classification only for its rationality,” and the Court purports to do that, since it cites Moreno as authority, expressly a rational basis case. “As nearly as I can tell, the Court agrees with that; its opinion does not apply strict scrutiny, and its central propositions are taken from rational-basis cases like Moreno. But the Court certainly does not apply anything that resembles that deferential framework.” He then noted how Kennedy slipped back and forth between equality language and liberty language, but “never utters the dread words ‘substantive due process,’ perhaps sensing the disrepute into which that doctrine has fallen.” (Disrepute in the Scalia household, perhaps, but not among those who disagree with the so-called originalist jurisprudence of Scalia and his acolytes on the Court.) He also argued that this could not really be a due process case, because of the lack of a history of respect for same-sex marriage, a test that the Court has used in the past for determining whether particular conduct is entitled to protection under the Due Process Clause. But Scalia was fighting a rear-guard action here, as Kennedy had eschewed the “history and tradition” test when writing for a majority of the Court in Lawrence, saying that longstanding historical regard for a right was not a necessary requirement for Due Process protection. This is really part of the “living constitution” debate, in which Scalia recently took the position during a public talk that the Constitution is “dead, dead, dead” – not to say that the Constitution is meaningless, but rather to say that, in his view, the essence of a written Constitution is that its meaning is fixed upon its adoption and does not evolve over time. This view has never won a firm majority on the Court, but Scalia writes as if it is well-established, as it is in his own mind. Kennedy clearly disagrees, as do the four Democratic appointees and even, from time to time, Chief Justice Roberts. Only Thomas and, perhaps, Alito, seem to adhere to Scalia’s views on this.
After ridiculing Kennedy’s opinion for never providing a fully-developed analysis of any of the doctrinal bases cited for the Court’s holding, Scalia wrote, “Some might conclude that this loaf could have used a while longer in the oven. But that would be wrong; it is already overcooked. The most expert care in preparation cannot redeem a bad recipe. The sum of all the Court’s nonspecific hand-waving is that this law is invalid (maybe on equal-protection grounds, maybe on substantive-due-process grounds, and perhaps with some amorphous federalism component playing a role) because it is motivated by a ‘bare . . . desire to harm’ couples in same-sex marriages.” Scalia then went on to hotly dispute – as he did in his Romer and Lawrence dissents – that antigay animosity was behind the challenged law, rejecting the idea that anti-gay legislation is necessarily the result of bigotry. He suggested that Kennedy failed to engage the arguments put forth by BLAG to defend Section 3 “because it is harder to maintain the illusion of the Act’s supporters as unhinged members of a wild-eyed lynch mob when one first describes their views as they see them,” and accused the Court of labeling the proponents of DOMA as “enemies of the human race.”
Also, as is his wont, Scalia predicted that the ultimate result of the opinion would be to decide the issues not presented to the Court, but beyond making predictions, and in a manner perhaps without precedent in the annals of the Supreme Court, Scalia inserted in his dissent several extended quotes from Kennedy’s opinion, edited to make the case that state laws denying same-sex couples the right to marry are unconstitutional. Scalia provided a veritable roadmap for lower courts to use in striking down state anti-marriage amendments! “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency,” he insisted, “the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.” Scalia concluded that the Court had improperly ventured into the political sphere, which is where he insisted that the issue of same-sex marriage should be resolved.
Alito’s dissent on the merits is more tempered than Scalia’s, adverting to the theories advocated by Prof. Robert George of Princeton University, a prominent foe of same-sex marriage who has argued that the traditional definition of marriage focused on its procreative potential and the complementarity of the two sexes, is an essential component of western civilization, with which we tamper at our peril. After appointing out the different views as to the essential character of marriage, contrasting the traditional view of its procreative purpose and the modern view embraced by popular culture, Alito insisted that the Constitution takes no position between these two views and mandates neither. Thus, the determination which view should be embraced by society is up to the polity speaking through the democratic process. He argued that the Court should not intervene in this process. “In our system of government,” he wrote, “ultimate sovereignty rests with the people, and the people have the right to control their own destiny. Any change on a question so fundamental should be made by the people through their elected officials.” And, “By asking the Court to strike down DOMA as not satisfying some form of heightened scrutiny, Windsor and the United States are really seeking to have the Court resolve a debate between two competing views of marriage. . . The Constitution does not codify either of these views of marriage (although I suspect it would have been hard at the time of the adoption of the Constitution or the Fifth Amendment to find Americans who did not take the traditional view for granted). The silence of the Constitution on this question should be enough to end the matter as far as the judiciary is concerned. . . I would not presume to enshrine either vision of marriage in our constitutional jurisprudence.”
As noted above, Alito devoted a lengthy textual footnote, rather out of the blue, to deprecating the conduct of the Prop 8 trial, presenting this as an illustration of why, in his view, it is inappropriate for the courts to take on the same-sex marriage question. “At times, the trial reached the heights of parody,” he wrote, “as when the trial judge questioned his ability to take into account the views of great thinkers of the past because they were unavailable to testify in person in his courtroom.” He deprecated the contention in academic amicus briefs filed in Hollingsworth “that we are bound to accept the trial judge’s findings – including those on major philosophical questions and predictions about the future – unless they are ‘clearly erroneous.’ Only an arrogant legal culture that has lost all appreciation of its own limitations could take such a suggestion seriously,” he harrumphed. Take that, you arrogant professors of constitutional law and civil procedure! One suspects that Alito, who joined the dissent in Hollingsworth, was disappointed that he could not embody these comments in a majority or concurring opinion, and was eager to make these observations somewhere, so here they are in the other case.
The Proposition 8 Decision
The majority and dissenting opinions in Hollingsworth are shorter and need less discussion, since there was no comment in either concerning the merits of the 14th Amendment claim that Proposition 8, which inserted into the California Constitution an amendment providing that only different-sex marriages would be “valid or recognized in California,” violated the equal protection rights of same-sex couples.
As noted above, Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, accepted the contention that because the initiative proponents could not satisfy the traditional Article III standing test of having a tangible, personal interest in the outcome of the case (i.e., they were not asking the Court for a remedy specific to them, as Proposition 8 does not directly affect any of their own rights; presuming none of the proponents has any interest in marring a person of the same sex), they could not appeal the trial court’s decision. If this means that sometimes state officials may rid themselves of noxious initiative products through the expedient of failing to defend them in the courts and then refusing to appeal the resulting decisions striking them down, then so be it. That’s the way the system works, according to Roberts, because federal courts are only authorized to decide real cases between real parties. “We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to,” concluded Roberts. “We decline to do so for the first time here.”
At the same time, Roberts made clear, the trial court did have jurisdiction, despite the failure of the named defendants to provide a substantive defense, and thus there is no jurisdictional fault identified by the Supreme Court with District Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling in the case. Justice Kennedy, in dissent, argued that the alternative standing theory was adequate to make this appeal proper, resting on the California Supreme Court’s admitted role as the authoritative exponent of California law. That didn’t impress Chief Justice Roberts. Since federal standing is a question of federal law, the California Supreme Court’s ruling was not binding on the federal courts. “The judgment of the Ninth Circuit is vacated,” he wrote, “and the case is remanded with instructions to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.” That should mean, in the normal course of events, that the 9th Circuit will lift its stay of Judge Walker’s Order, shifting the focus of attention to the implementation of that Order.
There was some comment about the “odd” line-up of the justices in this 5-4 ruling. The Chief Justice was joined by Justice Scalia and three members of the “liberal wing” of the Court, Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan. Justice Kennedy’s dissent was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito and the remaining member of the “liberal” wing, Justice Sotomayor. Thus, three justices who voted to strike down Section 3 of DOMA, and presumably would find Prop 8 to be unconstitutional, agreed with the Chief Justice that there was no jurisdiction to rule on the merits. As to the dissenters, Justice Alito had found jurisdiction in Windsor and was clearly itching to uphold Proposition 8. Justice Sotomayor, to judge by her general jurisprudential stance and her questions and comments at oral argument, would probably have voted to affirm the lower courts and strike down Prop 8 were she able to reach the issue. Justice Thomas would most likely have agreed with Alito as to the merits. Justice Kennedy’s views are more difficult to pin down, but one suspects that he would not be arguing so fiercely in favor of jurisdiction in this case if he did not have a strong view how it should be decided. Perhaps reading the tea-leaves of his Windsor opinion and taking Scalia’s dissent at face value, Kennedy was also poised to strike down Prop 8. So, the question occurs, if both Sotomayor and Kennedy were poised to strike down Prop 8, why did the other three “liberals” side with Roberts to dismiss the case?
For months, commentators have been struggling with Justice Ginsburg’s views on Roe v. Wade and what they might portend for her position in the same-sex marriage cases. Ginsburg has frequently stated that Roe was a premature and unduly expansive ruling, in light of the evolving political views on abortion rights at the time it was decided. She has suggested that had the Court written a narrower decision, leaving the future scope of abortion rights to the legislative process, abortion might not have become the hot-button political issue that it quickly became, with all the divisive effects flowing from that development. One speculates that Breyer and Kagan joined the Chief Justice in dismissing the appeal, having concluded that a decision on the merits might not strike down Prop 8 because Ginsburg might not supply the necessary fifth vote. It may even be that Ginsburg joined out of the pragmatic view that a dismissal would result in allowing the district court’s opinion to go into effect and same-sex marriage to resume in California. Thus, Prop 8 would be vanquished by default without the Supreme Court having to go on record as to whether same-sex couples have a right to marry under the 14th Amendment. This might seem to be the most prudent way for the Court to deal with an issue as to which there remains much public controversy. The art of avoiding merits decisions while obtaining desired results is a subtle weapon in the judge’s arsenal, perhaps cannily deployed here by Justice Ginsburg. In this light, Justice Scalia’s concurrence with the Chief might seem odd, given his ardent opposition to same-sex marriage, but on the other hand his concurrence seems consistent with his impassioned dissent on jurisdiction in Windsor, in which the Chief concurred.
So, the bottom line on the Hollingsworth non-decision is that the Court, in effect, decided to let the district court opinion be the final, unreviewable word on the narrow question of whether Prop 8 was unconstitutional, without creating any precedent binding on other federal courts, since only appellate rulings create binding precedents.
But where did that leave the case after the stay was lifted and Judge Walker’s Orderwent into effect? As to that, there was not complete agreement among the “parties” – if that term is loosely deployed to take in the original plaintiffs, the named defendants, and the intervenors whose standing to appeal had been definitively rejected by the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs argued all along that if the appeal was dismissed, Judge Walker’s Order required the state of California to make marriage licenses available to same-sex couples and to recognize those marriages as fully equal to the marriages of different-sex couples throughout the state, not limited to the two counties (Alameda and Los Angeles) whose clerks were named defendants, and certainly not limited to the two plaintiff couples who brought the case. In its 2009 decision finding that Prop 8 had been duly enacted, the California Supreme Court made clear that same-sex couples who married prior to the passage of Prop 8 remained married, and that their marriages were entitled to equal treatment under California law. Indeed, that Court also ruled that pursuant to its prior decision on the merits in the marriage cases, domestic partnerships in California would be entitled to the same status as marriages under state law in order to satisfy the court’s equal protection and due process holdings. It became clear after the Supreme Court’s decision was announced that Governor Jerry Brown (who was an original named defendant as attorney general) and Attorney General Kamala Harris agreed with that view. Comments by the justices during the oral argument hinted that dismissal on grounds of jurisdiction was a likely outcome, and Governor Brown, anticipating the ruling, asked the attorney general for an analysis of “the scope of the district court’s injunction.” She prepared a letter, which is dated June 3, advising the governor that “the injunction would apply statewide to all 58 counties, and effectively reinstate the ruling of the California Supreme Court in In re Marriage Cases (2008), 43 Cal.4th 757,857.” Harris concluded that the Department of Public Health could instruct all county officials to resume issuing marriage licenses and recording the subsequent marriages upon the lifting of the stay. The governor accepted this advice, and hours after the Supreme Court’s opinion was announced, the Department sent instructions to all County Clerks and County Recorders accordingly. As soon as the stay was lifted, the plaintiffs were alerted, rushed to get their marriage licenses, and were promptly married. Some clerks offices planned to stay open late Friday to process license applications from same-sex couples.
The initiative proponents had a different view, not unexpectedly, and Andrew Pugno, their California counsel, argued that a trial court ruling is not binding beyond the immediate parties. He contended that the only couples entitled to the benefit of Walker’s Order were the plaintiffs. This was not brought as a class action, he contended, and all the clerks in the state were not joined as co-defendants. He also argued that it was established in California law that only appellate rulings have statewide effect. Whether that would be true concerning a federal district court ruling as opposed to a California trial court ruling seems questionable, in light of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. If Prop 8 is unconstitutional as a basis for denying marriage licenses to the plaintiffs, surely it is unconstitutional if used to deny marriage licenses to any other similarly-situated same-sex couple anywhere in California, and principles of res judicata should prevent the need to re-litigate the matter in each county. Pugno threatened to take some sort of legal action to block implementation of the Order beyond the immediate parties, and criticized the lifting of the stay by the 9th Circuit panel and subsequent performance of marriages as lawless and inappropriately rushed.
As to timing, the Supreme Court’s procedures give disappointed parties up to 25 days to file motions for rehearing, after which the Court sends its mandate out to the lower court, in this case ordering dismissal of the appeal. It seemed unlikely that the Court would grant rehearing in either case, as that would require the disappointed party to persuade a member of the majority to change his or her views. The 9th Circuit Clerk filed an entry acknowledging receipt of the Court’s decision promptly after it was announced, a welcome artifact of our modern age of near-instantaneous electronic accessibility of high court rulings, and responded promptly to Attorney General Harris’s request to the lift the stay. Perhaps facts on the ground will successfully outflank any attempt by the proponents to interfere with the speedy implementation of the Order.
Also on Friday, the 28th, came what is probably the first judicial reliance on U.S. v. Windsor, as a federal district judge in Michigan cited the case in ruling on pending pretrial motions in an action challenging the Attorney General’s position that an anti-marriage amendment prevents the implementation of a recently enacted domestic partnership law. More details on that when I’ve had an opportunity to read the opinion.