Tag Archives: LGBT rights

After Illinois, Look West for the Next Same-Sex Marriage Battles

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Celebrations at the Chicago Pride Parade in June 2013. Today, Illinois becomes the 16th state (plus Washington, D.C.) to legalize same-sex marriage.

When Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signs a same-sex marriage bill into law today, the Land of Lincoln will officially become the 16th state to grant recognition to same-sex spouses, just one week after Hawaii.

2013 has been a banner year for gay rights activists–in addition to the Supreme Court decisions striking down the federal Defense Of Marriage Act and permitting same-sex marriage in California, the movement has seen the legalization of same-sex marriage almost double at the state level. Nearly one year ago, when the Supreme Court first agreed to hear United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, only nine states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage.

Of course, their work is still far from done. After Illinois, the focus will turn west toward New Mexico and Oregon.

Traditionally, states have legalized same-sex marriage through one of three ways: by referendum, through the state legislature, or via a ruling from the state’s judiciary.

New Mexico, the only state that has neither a constitution nor a state law explicitly addressing same-sex marriage, could become the 17th state to legalize such unions, thanks to the third route. Because of the state law’s silence on the matter, eight out of thirty-three counties began issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples after the Windsor and Hollingsworth rulings–eventually prompting all thirty-three New Mexico county clerks to ask the state supreme court for clarification on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral argument in October 2013 and is expected to hand down a decision by the end of this year.

If the New Mexico Supreme Court rules in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, the state will join Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, California and New Jersey as having decided the issue through a judicial ruling.

Meanwhile, advocates in Oregon are planning to overturn the state constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage through a referendum. The coalition Oregon United For Marriage is in the process of collecting the 116,284 signatures required by next July in order to place the question on the ballot in November 2014. If it succeeds (as of today, it needs only 1,204 more names), there’s cause for optimism: a December 2012 poll showed that 54% of Oregon voters would support marriage equality, versus 40% who would vote against it. Though gay and lesbian couples cannot be legally married in Oregon just yet, the state announced in October 2013 that it would start recognizing valid same-sex marriages from other states.

Should a same-sex marriage initiative pass in Oregon, the state will join Washington, Maine and Maryland as having settled the issue by popular vote.

The Human Rights Campaign anticipates that 40% of Americans will live in a state with marriage equality by the end of 2014.

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

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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. []