Tag Archives: Anthony Kennedy

Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action: Death By A Thousand Cuts for Race-Based Affirmative Action?

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette will defend Proposal 2, which changed the state constitution to ban affirmative action in public education, before the Supreme Court Tuesday. (Picture via Detroit Free Press)
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette will defend Proposal 2, which changed the state constitution to ban affirmative action in public education, before the Supreme Court Tuesday. (Picture via Detroit Free Press)

Tomorrow afternoon, the Supreme Court will once again tackle the thorny question of affirmative action in higher education, less than four months after bouncing Fisher v. University of Texas back to a lower court for a newly-tightened and more rigorous examination of the constitutionality of Texas’ race-conscious undergraduate admissions process.1 While the central dispute in Fisher involved the limits of one university’s specific plan to use race as a factor amongst others to achieve a diverse student body, the question in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action comes at the issue from a different direction: can a state’s voters change their constitution to ban public universities from considering race in their admissions plans at all?

In 2006, Michigan voters did precisely that by passing Proposal 2, which amended the state’s constitution to prohibit preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or national origin in its public education system.2 Proposal 2 was written as a direct response to Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that reaffirmed the constitutionality of universities considering race as one factor in holistic admissions policies, while simultaneously noting that such plans, if challenged, were still subject to strict scrutiny, the toughest level of judicial review. Under the strict scrutiny standard, a university (in Grutter, the University of Michigan Law School) must do two things: it must show that it has a compelling interest in the challenged admissions scheme, and then show that it has narrowly tailored its admissions process to fit that interest.

In the Grutter opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the First Amendment right of a university to attain a diverse student body–a principle first laid out in 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke–sufficed as a compelling interest in the context of higher education. “[U]niversities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition,” she asserted, and are therefore entitled to “educational autonomy” that allows them to “make [their] own judgments as to … the selection of [their] student body.” Because of this First Amendment right, the Supreme Court should in the process of applying strict scrutiny accord a great deal of deference to the University of Michigan’s “educational judgment that diversity is essential to its educational mission.” In fact, where diversity is the compelling reason for an affirmative action plan, courts should presume the school has acted “in good faith” in narrowly tailoring the plan to that interest. Using this standard, the Grutter court deemed constitutional the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions plan.

Three years after Grutter, opponents of affirmative action successfully pushed through Proposal 2 in order to stop the state’s universities from implementing such plans. In turn, the day after the amendment’s passage, a number of individuals and interest groups (including the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action) banded together to file suit against Proposal 2 as it pertained to higher education. A federal district court upheld the affirmative action ban, but an en banc Sixth Circuit subsequently overruled that decision, 8-7, in 2012 on the basis that the prohibition violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Whose rights were being violated? Was it the universities’ rights to put together a diverse student body in order to fulfill its educational mission–an academic freedom that, as Bakke and Grutter told us, long has been viewed as a special concern of the First Amendment? Given what Justice O’Connor had written in 2003, one might have assumed so, but the Coalition and its allies had decided to take a different tack. Instead, they–and the en banc Sixth Circuit opinion, in turn–relied on the “political restructuring” doctrine first set out in 1969’s Hunter v. Erickson and later reaffirmed in 1982’s Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1 to find that Proposition 2 had unconstitutionally deprived minorities of equal access to “the tools of political change.”

In Hunter v. Erickson, the citizens of Akron, Ohio overturned a municipal fair housing ordinance and changed the city charter to require a citywide vote on any similar laws in the future. The Supreme Court invalidated the amendment, ruling that “the State may no more disadvantage any particular group by making it more difficult to enact legislation in its behalf than it may dilute any person’s vote or give any group a smaller representation than another of comparable size.” In Washington v. Seattle, the Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved state law that banned the use of mandatory busing in general, non-racial terms, but included so many exceptions that its true effect was to prohibit busing for the racial integration of public schools. Applying Hunter, the Seattle Court found Washington state had placed “unusual burdens” on the ability of racial minorities to enact legislation “specifically designed to overcome the ‘special condition’ of prejudice.”  Because the majority of voters had created an extra obstacle in the political process that specifically targeted a minority group unlikely to win at the ballot box, the judiciary was obligated to step in and “[safeguard] the interests of those groups that are relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process.”

Taken together, Hunter and Seattle created a two-part rule for determining when an enactment has engaged in impermissible political restructuring: (1) the law in question has a racial focus that targets a program that “inures primarily to the benefit of the minority,” and (2) reallocates political power in a way that puts special burdens on the minority group.  Applying this test, the Sixth Circuit found that Michigan’s Proposal 2 disadvantages minorities in this exact manner, by removing the decision of whether to use race consciousness in university admissions from the educational institutions and fixing the ban in the state constitution. Now, a citizen of Michigan who wants a public college or university to consider race as one factor in the admissions process–a practice still constitutional under Supreme Court precedent–cannot merely lobby the university for such a policy, as an individual who desires special preferences for legacies or athletes can do. Rather, he or she must undergo the expensive and time-consuming process of amending the state’s constitution as well.  This showed, the Sixth Circuit concluded, the majority had “not only won, but has rigged the game to reproduce its success indefinitely.”

University of Michigan students at a pro-diversity rally on October 9, 2013. (AP Photo/The Ann Arbor News, Melanie Maxwell)
University of Michigan students at a pro-diversity rally on October 9, 2013. (Picture by AP Photo/The Ann Arbor News, Melanie Maxwell, via Monroe News)

Whether the Supreme Court agrees with the Sixth Circuit opinion will depend on how it distinguishes Proposal 2 from the laws challenged in Hunter and Seattle. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (rhymes with ‘duty’) argues that the Sixth Circuit misapplied the political restructuring rule, which is only relevant to laws that create political obstacles to equal treatment, not laws that bar preferential treatment as Proposal 2 does. Rather, by “prohibit[ing] the State from classifying individuals by race or gender,” Proposal 2 actually furthers, not subverts, the goals of the Equal Protection Clause. “It is curious to say that a law that bars a state from discriminating on the basis of race or sex violates the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating on the basis of race and sex,” the Schuette brief states, in an unmistakable echo of Chief Justice John Roberts’ most famous line in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, a 2007 case involving affirmative action at the elementary school level: “The only way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” In addition, Schuette maintains that Proposal 2 could not have targeted a politically powerless minority, as the amendment bars both preferential treatment for race and for gender. “[T]o the extent [Proposal 2] can be characterized as ‘disadvantaging’ any groups, those groups constitute a majority of Michigan’s population,” the brief states, arguing that it would be much easier than the Sixth Circuit suggests for Proposal 2’s opponents to overturn the amendment.

Given the way that each Justice has voted on affirmative action programs in the past, there is good reason to believe that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Thomas and Scalia will be sympathetic to Attorney General Schuette’s arguments. Though the Sixth Circuit’s en banc opinion purposely avoided revisiting Grutter and discussing the constitutionality of affirmative action, focusing solely instead on the political restructuring arguments, it is hard to imagine that Roberts, Alito and Scalia’s unease with race-conscious admissions policies will not come out in the oral argument tomorrow. Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Breyer, on the other hand, are likely to be skeptical of Schuette’s position. Since Justice Kagan has recused herself from this case and there are only eight justices voting, a 4-4 split would allow the Sixth Circuit decision invalidating the affirmative action ban to stand–making Justice Anthony Kennedy, once again, the likely decider.

As I explained in a piece on Fisher and affirmative action last year, Justice Kennedy has long harbored conflicting feelings about affirmative action programs. Just last Thursday, Jess Bravin of The Wall Street Journal asked the justice whether the inclusion of women and ethnic minorities on the Court had benefited the institution. Kennedy replied: “Sure, I think it’s helpful that we have different points of view. I’m not sure that rigid categories of gender and ethnic background are always proxies for diversity, but it gives legitimacy to what the court does.” This, in a nutshell, is Kennedy’s continuing attitude toward affirmative action in public education–it’s somewhat good, but it’s also a somewhat lazy way to achieve true diversity. He doesn’t have a definite answer about how exactly schools can work around this contradiction, but he knows that he wants them to try harder. How well Proposal 2’s challengers fare at tomorrow’s oral argument may hinge on their ability to convince Kennedy that these schools should not be barred from even giving it a shot.

So where does all of this lead us? Personally, I find it most helpful to view Fisher and Schuette as parallel cases that hammer away at affirmative action from two different sides. When the 7-1 Fisher decision was first handed down in June, many supporters of affirmative action breathed a sigh of relief, as they had feared a wider-ranging decision ruling racial affirmative action unconstitutional outright. However, with Kennedy’s majority opinion in Fisher ordering the lower court to give “no deference” to the University of Texas’ narrow tailoring on remand, the public university’s First Amendment right to a diverse student body has been all but gutted, making it much harder for schools to defend race-conscious admissions policies. Schuette now presents another possible alternative for states to defeat affirmative action by pre-emptively prohibiting it, thus eliminating the need to even bring the university to court. In other words, the Roberts Court may well choose a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy rather than one fatal body blow–especially with Justice Kennedy’s ongoing ambivalence–but the result remains the same.

  1. Fisher will be heard on remand by the Fifth Circuit on November 13th of this year. []
  2. Other parts of Proposal 2 also barred preferential treatment for the same categories in public employment and public contracting, but the challengers in Schuette are only questioning the validity of the affirmative action ban in the context of public education. []

[Infographic] Supreme Court Rules DOMA Unconstitutional

In a barn-burner of a decision today, the Supreme Court found unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), striking down the law based on a combination of states’ rights, equal protection and due process arguments. As expected, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for United States v. Windsor, joined by Justices Breyer, Kagan, Sotomayor and Ginsburg. Justices Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas dissented, with the former three each penning his own dissent.

The voiding of DOMA, which had kept the United States government from recognizing married same-sex couples, means that all legally-married couples can now receive the federal benefits allocated based on marital status, regardless of whether your spouse is of the same sex or not. The question of whether you can legally marry a person of the same sex in the first place, however, remains in the hands of the states, as the Court stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage to be a fundamental right.

The above interactive graphic shows key quotes from the justices, pulled from the March oral argument and from today’s ruling. You can scroll over each justice to open up a text box with his/her quotes. The red dot indicates the author of the majority opinion; yellow dots indicate the other justices in the majority; blue dots indicate the dissenters.

Further analysis of the Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor to come.

Some Thoughts on DOMA on the Eve of Supreme Court’s Ruling

Edie Thea
Thea Spyer and Edie Windsor. Windsor is suing the federal government for the return of over $363,000 that it charged her in federal taxes after she inherited her late wife Spyer’s estate. Had Windsor been married to a man instead of a woman, she would have been exempt from the tax. Picture via CNN.

We are now hours away from the last rulings of the Supreme Court’s term, and we know for certain that we’ll be getting a decision in United States v. Windsor, the challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (as well as Hollingsworth v. Perry, the California Proposition 8 case). On the eve of what will surely be a historic day for gays and lesbians across the country, it’s worth going back and reading the March oral argument for the case. A few points I’d like to make1:

  • Based on the way the other Justices were falling in line behind his questions at the oral argument and some deduction skills on the part of SCOTUSblog, there’s a decent chance that Justice Anthony Kennedy has the majority opinion in Windsor.
  • Assuming that Windsor isn’t decided on a standing issue (and I freely admit that it could be), I expect a Kennedy opinion to discuss states’ rights. Traditionally, family law has been left exclusively to the states, and Kennedy seemed quite concerned at the oral argument about the federalism issues implicated by DOMA, which orders the federal government not to recognize same-sex marriages even if they are legally recognized by the state. At one point, he reminded Paul Clement, the attorney defending the law: “[DOMA] applies to over 1,100 federal laws… when it has 1,100 laws, which in our society means that the Federal government is intertwined with the citizens’ day-to-day life, you are at real risk of running in conflict with what has always been thought to be the essence of the State police power, which is to regulate marriage, divorce, custody.”
  • Alternatively, if it does reach the merits of Windsor, the Supreme Court could strike down DOMA as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause (i.e. the law is unconstitutional because it singles out same-sex people for unfavorable treatment versus their opposite-sex counterparts). Such a ruling would, going forward, provide heightened legal protections for gays and lesbians in the face of discriminatory laws. However, this is also a much broader and groundbreaking route, and I’m not convinced that Kennedy will take it if he can decide the case based on a narrower states’ rights argument instead.

Associate Justice Elena Kagan Investiture Ceremony

While the lion’s share of attention re: DOMA has been focused on Kennedy (including, of course, this post, which has already given him three bullet points), I also want to highlight a couple of points that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan made at the Windsor oral argument:

        • Ginsburg drew big laughs at the argument when she compared the current state of same-sex marriage to “skim milk”i.e. not the real thing. Snappy sound bite aside, however, it’s interesting to note that Ginsburg–who by all accounts had a happy, fulfilling marriage to the late tax attorney Martin Ginsburg–was the one justice who focused the most on the everyday effects DOMA has on very real people and very real relationships. Again and again, Ginsburg steered the discussion back to the everyday hardships caused by this law–the loss of benefits, a higher tax burden, the inability to take leave to tend to a sick spouse–implicitly asking her colleagues to think about what a marriage really means. We need to strike down DOMA, she was saying, because it is unconstitutional to subject these Americans to a lower quality of life than what their heterosexual brothers and sisters expect and receive.
        • Whereas Justice Ginsburg made it a point to talk about (to put it in a cheesy way) love being love, Justice Kagan had an equally compelling observation about hate. Kagan’s strategy at oral argument was to focus on the people behind the law rather than the people the law affected. DOMA has no place in our society, Kagan suggested, because there are indications that it was motivated by “fear,” “animus” and “moral disapproval” against gays and lesbians–all constitutionally impermissible reasons for imposing differential treatment on a whole class of people. Memorably, she shut down Paul Clement when he tried to dispute this by reading aloud the House Report for DOMA: “‘Congress decided to reflect an honor of collective moral judgment and to express moral disapproval of homosexuality.'”
        • Together, Kagan and Ginsburg’s arguments about the suspect motivations and unjust results of DOMA made for a pretty good one-two punch. Assuming, again, that Kennedy actually has the majority opinion and dispatches DOMA based on a theory of states’ rights, I’m really hoping for a concurrence or two from either (or both) of these Justices, laying the intellectual groundwork for an equal protection decision somewhere down the line.
        • If that is the outcome, we can expect at least one fiery dissent as well. My money’s on Justice Scalia, who just last Friday gave a speech to the North Carolina Bar Association insisting that courts had no business deciding moral issues, which should be left to the political process. (He forgets that mixed-race marriage was also considered immoral back when Loving v. Virginia [the 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning anti-miscegenation laws] was decided, and that it was the Court that pulled public opinion along on this, not the other way around.)

Finally, it bears remembering that exactly ten years ago, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down the criminal convictions of two men who had been arrested and tried under a Texas law that prohibited certain forms of sexual conduct between members of the same sex. In overruling an earlier Supreme Court decision that had upheld the application of state sodomy bans to gay and lesbian sexual activity, majority opinion author Justice Anthony Kennedy invoked the Founding Fathers:

They knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.

In a few short hours, we’ll find out just how committed Kennedy and the rest of the Supreme Court remain to this principle.

 

  1. With the major caveat, of course, that I realize oral arguments are not always an accurate indicator of the eventual outcome of a case. []

DOMA likely to fall, but how much further will Kennedy go?

Edie Arrives in Court

Edith Windsor, the 83-year-old plaintiff challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, arrives at Court with attorney Roberta Kaplan. Picture by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, found via ABC News.

Justice Anthony Kennedy had a choice to make this morning. In deciding the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act, should he go with a theory of federalism that emphasizes respect for states’ rights, or a wider-ranging theory of equality that might result in heightened legal protections for gays and lesbians across the United States?

Kennedy picked the former route and clung tightly to it today in a 110-minute oral argument for United States v. Windsor that put the swing Justice on firmer jurisprudential ground than yesterday’s Proposition 8 case. While the facts of Hollingsworth v. Perry pitted states’ rights and equal protection for gays directly against one another, leaving Kennedy confused as to which of a variety of unpalatable options he should choose, the legal issues in the Windsor case presented no such conflict. Rather, the state’s voters and the law’s challengers aligned in Windsor, where they merely asked the federal government to respect nine states’ decisions to recognize same-sex marriages. Here, the principles of federalism and equal protection both point to the unconstitutionality of DOMA.

Assuming that the Court doesn’t decide the case based on standing grounds, Justice Kennedy seemed perfectly content on Wednesday to limit any eventual ruling to the first question about states’ rights. He repeatedly reminded Paul Clement–the attorney tasked by the House of Representatives to argue in support of DOMA, since the Obama administration refused to defend it–that the right to define marriage (and the rest of family law) is “the essence of the State police power.” Kennedy also expressed concern over the sheer number of federal benefits provided based on marital status–1,100 and counting–noting that this means “the Federal government is intertwined with the citizens’ day-to-day life,” interfering with the state’s traditional “prerogative.”

Despite earlier rulings on gay rights cases that indicated a willingness to extend heightened judicial protections to gays and lesbians under the Fourteenth Amendment–an equality-based argument that would have far greater reach and be far more potent against discriminatory laws than a states’ rights takedown of DOMA–Kennedy appeared very hesitant to reconsider equal protection principles today (an issue on which he had also shown confusion at the Proposition 8 discussion yesterday). Several times during the oral argument, a fellow Justice or attorney would bring up Fourteenth Amendment considerations, and Kennedy would immediately steer them back to the federalism issues.

Sensing that its crucial fifth vote was reluctant to revisit arguments about equality, the liberal wing of the Court was happy to run with Kennedy’s line of thinking and echoed many of his concerns in follow-up questions. (One of the many perks of being a swing justice must be getting to set the tone for the oral argument and watching the rest of your colleagues follow along.) Justice Sotomayor asserted that the states, and not the federal government, control the institution of marriage, Kagan made reference to “historic State prerogatives,” and Ginsburg reiterated Kennedy’s sentiment that DOMA touches “every aspect of life” in a “pervasive” manner.

Kennedy’s hesitation notwithstanding, Justice Kagan in particular seemed intent on exploring heightened legal protection for gays and exposing DOMA as outdated legislation impermissibly based on animus. At one point, she dismantled Paul Clement’s arguments about legitimate government purposes for DOMA–he’d insisted that the federal government passed the law for purposes of uniformity across the states–by reading to him the 1996 House Report that clearly states that DOMA sprang from “moral disapproval” of homosexuality. While this rationale was once constitutional, basing discriminatory laws on disapproval toward a particular group has since been prohibited in 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas, the majority opinion for which was authored by–you guessed it–Anthony Kennedy himself. Clement was forced to backpedal and say that while some legislators may have had “improper motives” for DOMA, not all 84 of the Senators who voted for the law bore animus toward gays and lesbians.

Just as the liberal justices tailored their questions toward Kennedy’s views, the conservative Justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Scalia, tried to assuage Kennedy’s concerns by pressing Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr. and Edie Windsor’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, on states’ rights. Roberts repeatedly asked both parties if there was truly a federalism problem–a bit of a trap for Verrilli in particular, who as the representative of the United States federal government has no interest in ceding too much power to the states–and became audibly annoyed whenever Kaplan or Verrilli attempted to tie their answers to an equal protection argument. While Roberts and Scalia tried to compel the DOMA challengers to say that federal overreach was not really an issue here, Justice Alito brought up the practical point that a DOMA defeat would mean that gay couples could be treated differently whenever they moved across state lines–and therefore, that the equal protection problem is ultimately unavoidable.

Of course, Justice Alito is spot on here. Regardless of how Anthony Kennedy decides to decide this case, marriage equality is spreading throughout the United States, and the Supreme Court will eventually have to decide what level of judicial protection gays and lesbians deserve. As the swing vote firmly in control of the wheel, however, Kennedy has the luxury of slowing down the train if he wants to, and it looks like he’s going to do just that in the name of federalism. It won’t be as big of a step as many had hoped for, but come June we will likely be one tiny step closer to a more perfect union.

“It’s a Magic Word:” Tweets from the Eminently Quotable DOMA Oral Argument

Today, the Supreme Court heard two hours of arguments in United States v. Windsor, with fifty minutes allotted on the technical question of standing–namely, whether the DOMA case should even be before the Supreme Court at all–and sixty minutes on the merits. Though the Prop 8 case on Tuesday seemed to get the lion’s share of media attention–pictures of the line and the protests outside the Courthouse this morning show a smaller audience than yesterday’s–initial reactions and reports indicate that the DOMA argument and subsequent press conference from plaintiff Edie Windsor are 10,000% more quotable. A collection of tweets recapping the day’s events:

“Uncharted Waters:” Confused By Array of Options, Justices Mull Deciding Proposition 8 Case on Procedural Grounds

Prop 8 Flag
Picture via Variety.

When all was said and done, there weren’t any major revelations in Tuesday’s oral argument for Hollingsworth v. Perry, but it did set the stage for an interesting two hours of arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act that the Supreme Court will hear today.

Chief Justice John Roberts looked for ways to dispose of the Proposition 8 challenge based on the procedural question of standing–as he has done in so many other cases during his tenure–and at least four of his fellow Justices seemed receptive to that option, dissatisfied with the alternatives that the attorneys before them were offering.

The Prop 8 challengers and the United States government framed this fight as the latest in a long line of struggles for equality, appealing to the liberal wing of the Court as we thought they might. They drew parallels to Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 case that outlawed state bans on interracial marriages. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg–a civil rights pioneer in her own right–reminded Charles Cooper, the lawyer defending Proposition 8, that it was unsound to rely on the Constitutional reasoning of a thirty-year-old Supreme Court decision unfavorable to gay marriage (Baker v. Nelson), given that gender discrimination was barely even recognized back then. Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned Cooper about whether the government had any rational basis to deny gays and lesbians benefits other than marriage, and Justice Elena Kagan repeatedly pressed Cooper to specify the harm that same-sex marriage causes.

And, as expected, Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia did not take kindly to the arguments of the Prop 8 challengers. Scalia managed not to emit any overly damaging sound bites this time–the worst thing he said concerned potential “deleterious effects” of same-sex parenting on children–but got into a testy exchange with anti-Prop 8 attorney Ted Olson. Seeking to make a point about America’s long and treasured history of discriminating against gays, he interrogated Olson on when exactly gay marriage bans became unconstitutional, berating him when Olson attempted to answer with a rhetorical question about interracial marriage prohibitions, and responding triumphantly when Olson admitted that he could not provide a specific day: “Well, how am I supposed to decide the case, then–if you can’t give me a date when the Constitution changes?”

Debates that the public has been having for years spilled over into the courtroom as the Justices extended each side’s arguments to their logical conclusions. They grilled Cooper on why, if procreation is the main point of marriage, the state hasn’t banned marriages between infertile, elderly or incarcerated couples. They asked Olson whether a state could prohibit polygamy or incestuous marriages if marriage is in fact a fundamental right under the Constitution. Neither of the answers that the attorneys provided–a convoluted riff about preventing the evils of infidelity from Cooper, and a muddy distinction drawn by Olson between status and conduct–seemed to satisfy a clear majority of the Justices.

Donald Verrilli
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in 2008. Picture by the Associated Press, via Cleveland.com.

Though none of the questions came out of left field, there weren’t any obvious winners or losers, as each of the lawyers’ arguments had holes that made several Justices uncomfortable. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Jr., arguing the federal government’s position in support of the Prop 8 challengers, probably fared the worst out of the three attorneys. He took a verbal beating from both liberal and conservative justices over the Obama administration’s dubious stance that states offering civil unions must be made to offer same-sex marriage as well, while states that have never allowed the civil union option should not be required to legalize same-sex marriage. Wouldn’t such an “all or nothing” approach incentivize states to grant their gay citizens no rights instead of some rights, Breyer asked? Verrilli didn’t have a good answer. Then again, as last year’s oral arguments for the Affordable Care Act showed, he doesn’t have to be on his A game for the Justices to find in his favor. Even if the Justices are loath to accept the federal government’s preferred “eight state” course of action, the Obama administration would still celebrate any California-specific result that leaves intact federal district judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling against Prop 8 (or the Ninth Circuit affirmation of that decision).

In the end, it all comes down to Anthony Kennedy, as it has many times before and will again in the future. Justice Kennedy did quite not tip his hand at yesterday’s argument, asking probing questions of both sides. He showed concern over what would happen to the 40,000 children in California with same-sex parents if their fathers and mothers were denied the right to marry, yet balked at the thought of finding a fundamental right to same-sex marriage, warning that the Court was wandering into “uncharted waters.” Kennedy pushed Cooper to concede that he couldn’t think of any specific ways in which same-sex marriage injures society, but also suggested that the case might have been improvidently granted in the first place and should be thrown out based on standing rules. Basically, he appeared to be searching for a rationale to justify a limited rather than broad ruling. Hence, it’s unlikely that the Court will uphold Proposition 8 or make same-sex marriage constitutional across all 50 states–but beyond that, it is unclear what the exact decision is going to be.

Prior to Tuesday’s oral argument, David Boies, Ted Olson’s partner in Hollingsworth v. Perry, had confidently predicted that the Proposition 8 challengers would win the case by at least a 6-3 margin. Emerging from the courthouse into the sunshine yesterday afternoon, however, Olson didn’t sound so sure. “Based on the questions the Justices asked, I have no idea” what the Supreme Court will rule, he said. Most court-watchers don’t, either, but it will be very interesting to see how the Prop 8 arguments over standing, states’ rights and respect for the legislative process play out when the Justices tackle similar questions in the United States v. Windsor DOMA challenge today.

Supreme Court Reactions: Tweets from the Prop 8 Oral Argument

Oral argument for the California Proposition 8 case has ended in Washington, D.C., and the Supreme Court audio and transcript are now up. It’s pretty inconclusive from today’s session what kind of ruling the Justices are going to come up with, but that didn’t stop the Twittersphere from exploding into varying degrees of rage, joy and punditry. Here is a brief recap in tweet form, culled from legal commentators, journalists and the rest of the peanut gallery:

The Supreme Court Hears Same-Sex Marriage Cases: A Brief Reading List

Edie Windsor

Edie Windsor. Picture courtesy of the New York Times. 

All eyes are on the Supreme Court this morning as it prepares to finally hear two cases on same-sex marriage, the civil rights issue of our time. Starting shortly after 10 a.m. today, a 60-minute oral argument will be held for Hollingsworth v. Perry, which questions the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 restricting the definition of marriage to one woman and one man. Tomorrow morning, the Justices will hold a 110-minute argument for United States v. Windsor, in which the Supreme Court could strike down the 17-year-old Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denies federal benefits to same-sex couples even if their marriages are recognized by the state. (The Court is expected to release the audio recording and transcript for each argument shortly after it ends.)

Given the historical significance of these two cases, it’s not surprising that the Internet has lit up with a maelstrom of commentary on just about everyone and anyone who is even remotely connected to either suit. From current Chief Justice John Roberts to former Justice Harry Blackmun, the marquee duo of lawyers challenging Proposition 8 to the people who have been paid to wait in line since Thursday night for the chance to score seats at the oral arguments, everything SCOTUS-related has come under increasing scrutiny as March 26, 10 a.m. draws near. Lest you are feeling overwhelmed by this deluge of information or just looking to do a little bit of last-minute reading as we wait for the Court to wrap up the day’s oral argument, I’ve compiled some of what I think are the most helpful and informative articles for understanding who’s who and what’s going on:

The Overview: Hundreds of articles have picked apart the individual issues and key players before the Court. For one centralized, concise summary of all the legal issues at stake in Hollingsworth and Windsor, the inimitable SCOTUSblog has two primers from Amy Howe. For a quick-hits list of things to watch for at the arguments, go to CNN’s Matt Smith or Slate’s Emily Bazelon, both of whom have highlighted the most important things to know.

The Plaintiffs of Proposition 8: Unsurprisingly, the media has made much hay of the human interest stories behind these cases. The two couples handpicked from California to challenge Prop 8–Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo–are profiled in USA Today as “workaday couples living the American Dream, with one exception–they can’t marry their partners.” Perry and Stier also recently gave an interview to the Associated Press (found via the Huffington Post) in which they recall how they’ve lived the last four years in a “pins-and-needles way” while litigating their case up to the nation’s highest court.

The Lawyers Challenging Proposition 8: One of the most dramatic storylines in a case chock-full of them has to be the partnership of superstar lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson, who were famously opponents in Bush v. Gore. The conservative Olson, a former Solicitor General for the U.S. under President George W. Bush, was initially met with some skepticism when he announced that he would be joining Boies in the fight against Prop 8; the Los Angeles Times profiles him here. David Boies, for his part, gave an interview to USA Today two weeks ago stating his belief that Hollingsworth v. Perry will be decided in their favor with more than five votes.

The Plaintiffs of DOMA: “I came to New York to let myself be gay.” Edie Windsor, an 83-year-old widow and former IBM engineer who was engaged to Thea Spyer for 40 years and married for two before Spyer’s death, is the subject of an illuminating New York Times piece about her reasons for challenging the federal government. New York Magazine recently compiled a slideshow of pictures from Windsor and Spyer’s life together.

The Lawyer Challenging DOMA: Though Windsor–with her winsome personality, elegant looks and her compelling love story–now looks like what civil rights lawyers would call the perfect plaintiff for same-sex marriage, her case was rejected by a major gay rights organization before being picked up by Roberta Kaplan, an attorney with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Kaplan, who has said that it took her all of five seconds to decide that she wanted to litigate Windsor’s case, explains her reasoning to Advocate.

Justice Anthony Kennedy: The current swing vote on an increasingly polarized Court, Justice Kennedy’s jurisprudence isn’t always easy to pin down, but he has been sympathetic to gay rights in the past. Famously, he cast the deciding vote (and wrote the opinions) in both Romer v. Evans, which threw out a Colorado law barring anti-gay discrimination laws, and Lawrence v. Texas, in which the Court overturned a Texas sodomy law that was used to prosecute a gay couple for consensual sexual activity. Back in December, when the cases were first granted, Jeffrey Rosen of The New Republic considered whether Kennedy would go for a broad constitutional ruling or a narrow one in light of his previous rulings. Garrett Epps of The Atlantic writes here that we can expect Kennedy to stick to his record of defending both states’ rights and gay rights.

Justice Antonin Scalia: Just as Kennedy is known for leaning libertarian on gay rights issues, Scalia is quite well-known for his moral opposition to same-sex marriage. The big question going into today and tomorrow’s arguments is what he will say this time about gay marriage, and how offensive it will be. Mother Jones and ABC News have both compiled some of Justice Scalia’s thoughts on same-sex marriage over the years, including pieces of his dissents in Romer and Lawrence, and his now-infamous comments comparing disapproval of homosexuality to disapproval of murder, made during a speech at Princeton in 2012.

The Families of the Supreme Court: Robert Barnes of the Washington Post discusses the love lives and marriages of the Justices, noting that many of them have not chosen the “traditional” marriage or childbearing arrangements that Prop 8 and DOMA supporters trumpet. The Los Angeles Times also brings up the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts has a gay cousin, Jean Podrasky, who will be in attendance at the oral arguments this week in the ‘families and friends of SCOTUS’ section. Podrasky told the LA Times: “I believe he sees where the tide is going… I absolutely trust that he will go in a good direction.”

The Shadow of Roe v. Wade: When the DOMA and Prop 8 suits were first filed, many wondered whether pushing same-sex marriage through the courts rather than the state-by-state legislative process was a mistake, pointing to the cautionary tale of Roe v. Wade, which polarized the debate on abortion. The New York Times writes on the shadow of Roe here.

The Forerunners: Linda Greenhouse of the NYT delves into the notes of the late Justice Harry Blackmun (the author of Roe v. Wade) to ascertain his thoughts on same-sex marriage, an issue that the Supreme Court wouldn’t even touch while Blackmun was on the bench in the 1970’s. Greenhouse also highlights the story of Jack Baker and James McConnell, a Minnesota couple who took their state to court in 1970 for their right to marry each other, and reflects on how much public opinion has changed since then.

The Public: Public support for same-sex marriage has snowballed in the last year, and it’s impossible to think that the Justices haven’t noticed. The Pew Research Center found in a March 2013 poll that support had swelled to a high of 48% (versus 43% of respondents who were opposed to same-sex marriage). NPR has created a timeline tracking same-sex marriage in the courts and in pop culture here.  Meanwhile, sensing this change in the air, members of Congress have been tripping over each other to announce their support for same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court speaks, as TIME reports. Mother Jones has compiled a timeline of politicians’ about-faces on this issue.

The People Standing in Line: SCOTUSblog reported last week that people were lining up outside of the courthouse for oral argument seats as early as Thursday night, and the media promptly descended. One man tells the National Journal that he has conducted over 200 interviews while waiting in line. Meanwhile, Adam Liptak and SCOTUSblog trade barbs over the fact that at least some of those in line were paid to stand (or, sit) there by wealthier lawyers who want a seat at the historic hearings but not the five-day wait.

The Possible Outcomes:  Finally, the New York Times has a very helpful infographic here about the possible ways in which the Supreme Court could decide both cases, and what states each outcome would affect.

Death to Citizens United

Courtesy of Forbes.

That’s what Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) is going for. After surveying his options and concluding that no other alternative exists, Udall — who’s also integral to Senate filibuster reform efforts, which I’m covering in a magazine article to appear within the next month — is pushing for a constitutional amendment:

The amendment would give Congress the constitutional power to regulate the raising and spending of money in national elections, and it would give the states the same power to regulate spending in their elections. The amendment strikes at the fundamental heresy that lies at the heart of both Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, the 40-year-old case that made CU inevitable, given the correct composition of a future Supreme Court: namely, that money is speech. To this, of course, was added the equally preposterous notion that corporations are people and that, therefore, they have the same free speech rights as you, me, and the guy on the next bar stool. (How preposterous? Google Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad some time and get a good look at how corporate personhood got birthed on the wrong side of the constitutional blanket.) Pass the amendment, and all of the entangled absurdity of Citizens United goes away. One doomsday machine takes out the other.

As a law student, Udall watched the Buckley case work its way through the system all the way to fruition. He was already a local district attorney in the 1980s when a constitutional amendment was proposed to overturn Buckley. (Udall’s uncle, the late Congressman Mo Udall of Arizona, was one of the early supporters of that amendment and took campaign-finance reform as one of his signature issues when he ran for president in 1976.) He saw clearly where the country was headed once that decision was handed down. He heard the floodgates beginning to creak open.

“Back then, Mo and Dave Obey (the former Wisconsin congressman) believed that, if you could investigate, and find that campaign contributions injected corruption, or the appearance of corruption, into the system, then you could regulate it.” Unfortunately, in its intricate tricks and traps, to borrow a phrase from Senator-elect Warren, Citizens United took care of that, too, with weathervane Anthony Kennedy famously opining within his crucial concurrence to the CU-based decision that struck down the Montana law that corporate independent campaign expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” And thus are born Super Pacs and phony, covertly-financed 501(c) “welfare” organizations out of which come roaring a thousands attack ads.

“What they’ve done, essentially, is legalize money-laundering,” Udall says. “You can shut down the 501(c) and then sluice the money into the campaign, and the secrecy around the donors is maintained. Secrecy has no place in a democracy and particularly not in the electoral process.

“Once you say that money is speech,then you get what we have now — a Supreme Court that’s getting bolder and bolder in defending its decision. That’s what you saw when the Montana law was struck down. They passed that law because they saw what unlimited and anonymous corporate money could do to democracy. Right now, there is no possible legal remedy to this decision on a national level. We have to go with a constitutional amendment because we have to take the Supreme Court head-on.”

This is still an uphill battle, however: so far only 26 senators support the amendment. So…41 to go, plus the House?

The next four years

With the election safely behind us — and, fortunately, without any controversy or recount in the offing — we can now pivot towards prognostications for the future. And no, not 2016. (Please, not for another two and a half years at the least.)

To that end, The First Casualty contributors Sam Lim, Mark McAdam, and Victoria Kwan have each weighed in with their thoughts on what to watch for — especially given their areas of interest — in the coming months and years. Feel free to join in the conversation in the comments!

Sam Lim: Higher Education

In his first term, President Obama worked to make higher education more affordable, shifting over $60 billion from private student loan providers to boosting the federal Pell grant program. In his second term, I expect that President Obama will continue pushing for maintaining — and hopefully increasing — Pell grant funding for students with financial need.

I expect further simplification of the process for applying for federal student aid. Changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) over the past few years have made it immensely easier for students, but then-candidate Obama proposed even simpler solutions in 2008 (such as streamlining the FAFSA application process with the filing of tax returns).

Combined with the continued development of financial tools such as college price comparison calculators for students and families offered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, I expect to see an effort to make processes like applying for aid or choosing the best type of loans even more transparent and accessible.

Of greatest concern are the skyrocketing costs of college tuition and rising student debt. As he mentioned in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama will work to ensure that colleges and universities are not pricing higher education out of range for most middle- and low-income students.

I would expect to see either financial incentives or sanctions for public colleges and universities to bring tuition down and keep it in check. If not proposed, I would at least expect these options to be strongly considered. I would also expect to see further initiatives to help students and graduates manage their debt, potentially through expanded loan forgiveness programs tied to public service and other high-need areas.

The Obama Administration seems to favor addressing educational issues most by incentivizing local solutions (more so in K-12, but also in higher ed), so I would fully expect to see more incentive-based programs and initiatives to encourage local level education reform through programs similar to Race to the Top or Innovation (i3) Grants. With jobs and economic growth a key focus, I expect areas that might be further targeted include community colleges, career and technical education, and college-to-career pipelines.

Without a doubt, given the little support for higher education demonstrated by Governor Romney, students and supporters of higher education should be hopeful that President Obama has four more years to continue working to make higher education an accessible opportunity for all students.

Samson Lim is the Executive Director of Seattle-based Scholarship Junkies, a scholarship resource organization that works to help students make higher education more affordable. Sam spent a year conducting ethnographic research on access to higher education in Berlin, Germany, as a 2010-11 U.S. Student Fulbright Scholar. Currently, Sam can be found buried in reading for his Masters of Education program in Politics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, although he emerges every once in a while to highlight higher ed and financial aid issues in 140 characters or less at @samsonxlim.

Mark McAdam: The (Indispensable) Republican Reformation

“What a waste.”

It is more than likely that this was the sentiment Republican strategists awoke to on Wednesday morning, as they pondered the past 16 months on the campaign trail.  “What a waste because–a sluggish economic recovery provided–it should have been so easy to beat Barack Obama on Tuesday.”

As pundits have begun offering their own explanations as to why Republicans failed to win back the White House on Tuesday, the Republican Party will have to reexamine its own platform if it hopes to remain electorally competitive and actually win future national elections. Below is an outline of four issue areas Republicans must address:

1) Same-sex marriage: 2012 is not 2004. Whereas opposition to gay marriage in 2004 actually helped bring out the vote and secured a second term for George W. Bush, public opinion on gay marriage has changed significantly in the past eight years. With 69% of voters under 30 years of age supporting gay marriage (not to mention 37% of Republicans between ages 18 and 29!), it hardly seems feasible to build a party platform around discriminatory policies which young people–i.e. those voting for the next sixty years–largely reject.

2) Immigration: The Republican primary process was a disgrace and provides clear evidence that a “race to the bottom” is possible in selecting a party’s nominee. On no issue was this as apparent as on how to deal with undocumented immigrants. With demographic trends suggesting that the United States is becoming less and less Caucasian, it should have been surprising that each candidate attempted to outperform the next in terms of alienating voters with an immigration background. (Or, for that matter, voters who know immigrants.) Wanting to cause conditions which would lead to “self-deportation” and endorsing ideas like that of an electric fence on the border does not only seem eerily un-American, but xenophobia is also bad politics in a demographically changing electorate.

3) Foreign Policy: The days in which neoconservative thought ruled Republican thinking on foreign policy seem over, yet instead of a competing paradigm emerging to replace it, Republicans face an intellectual void on foreign policy matters. (Admittedly, the same–i.e. an intellectual void–is also true for the Democratic Party.) Substantively meaningless, Republicans seem motivated to “be tougher than their opponents” on foreign policy, yet this reveals nothing about whether to intervene in Libya, how to respond to developments in Syria, or what the country’s relationship with Pakistan should look like. More importantly, there is no understanding–no vision–of what America’s role in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 world is or should be.

4) The Economy & The State: Likely the issue on which Republicans perform best, one is nevertheless forgiven to assume that the Republican answer to all economic matters is to deregulate and to cut taxes and government spending. Yet the assumption that the economic state of nature is one of harmony finds no credible support. Indeed, Republicans, who are only partially justified in purporting to be heirs of the free enterprise tradition, would do well to argue that the state can and must take on a positive role in a free enterprise framework: it must provide a legal framework, including oversight of markets; it must provide proper regulation; and it should push for legislation fostering competition. All of these ideas are entirely consistent with a free enterprise approach and, if put into place properly, do not lead to a path towards socialism.

Republicans mistakenly hoped that unemployment at 7.9% would suffice to win the White House. But without altering their rigid party platform and making it more amenable to the electorate as a whole, Republicans could lose many more national elections.

Mark McAdam is a football guru. When he’s not writing about the Bundesliga, he advocates on behalf of free societies. He has a Master’s degree in “Politics, Economics & Philosophy” and studied at the University of Hamburg’s Institute for Economic Systems, the History of Economic Thought and the History of Ideas.

Victoria Kwan: The Federal Judiciary

How much will Barack Obama’s re-election affect the composition of the Supreme Court? Looking at current circumstances, the answer is “not much.” Right now, there are three Supreme Court justices over the age of 75: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (79), her best friend Antonin Scalia (76), and Anthony Kennedy (76). Of the three, Justice Ginsburg is the most likely to retire in the coming four years.  The Brooklyn native is tough as nails–she has already weathered two bouts of cancer (while barely missing any work) and the death of her husband in her 19 years on the Court, and her mind remains as sharp as ever–but given her health history, her age and her liberal stance, it would not be surprising at all if she stepped down and gave a Democratic administration the chance to fill her place. President Obama would surely replace Ginsburg with a moderate to liberal justice who would preserve the current balance on the Court (four conservatives, four liberals and one swing vote).

Now, if either Justice Scalia or Justice Kennedy were to step down, Obama would have the opportunity to put together a five-liberal majority bloc. Barring a serious health issue, however, this isn’t likely to happen. Scalia accumulated quite a list of furious dissents before finally seeing a five-conservative majority coalesce under George W. Bush’s administration, and he relishes his position as the anchor of the Court’s conservative wing too much to voluntarily give up his seat. Meanwhile, despite all protestations to the contrary, Kennedy seems to greatly enjoy his current role as the swing vote.  Their job satisfaction and apparent good health mean that Citizens United–the ruling that the Democrats would most like to see SCOTUS overturn, and hence, the liberal equivalent of Roe v. Wade–will remain intact for at least the next four years.  On the other hand, Obama’s re-election also means that Roe continues to be safe for now.

Beyond the Supreme Court, there is the question of the re-election’s impact on the rest of the federal judiciary. George W. Bush made the appointment of young conservative judges a top priority in both terms, filling a total of 325 federal judgeships over eight years. So far, Obama has appointed 160 (which is behind the pace Bush and Clinton set in each of their first four years). The rate at which Obama has been able to fill judicial vacancies has been slow to say the least, creating judicial emergencies in some understaffed and overworked courts. Part of the reason for this is Republican obstructionism. As Slate reported in September, citing studies from the Congressional Research Service, even the uncontroversial Obama nominees have seen their confirmation times (the number of days between nomination and confirmation) jump up sharply compared to Bush’s nominees. None of Obama’s nominees to federal appeals courts have been confirmed in under 100 days, while 28.6% of Bush’s were.

But the blame does not rest solely on the Republican party: Obama himself has not made the appointment of judges a top priority in the same way Bush did. He has moved slowly to even name candidates–many of the current vacancies don’t even have nominees to vote on–and when he does nominate, Obama more often than not chooses moderates over outspoken liberals. And of course, in this past election cycle, the federal judiciary was barely discussed by the Obama campaign. One optimistic explanation (for liberals, that is) for Obama’s moderate first-term approach could be that he had re-election in mind, and can now nominate liberal judges at a much faster and more aggressive clip. But the likelier explanation is that, as Jeffrey Toobin writes, Obama simply does not see the courts as the most appropriate place to enact widespread social change, preferring to problem-solve through the legislative arena.

Bottom Line: when it comes to the courts, we should expect to see more of the same.

Victoria holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School in New York and has recently completed a clerkship with a judge in Anchorage, Alaska. She tweets as @nerdmeetsboy and posts primarily on legal issues, especially those involving the Supreme Court.