Tag Archives: Sonia Sotomayor

What Now for Same-Sex Marriage in Utah?

The Supreme Court pushed the “pause” button on gay marriage in Utah yesterday, preventing any new marriages between same-sex couples from taking place until the case has been decided on appeal by the Tenth Circuit. Let’s take a second to unpack the justices’ order:

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OK, so there’s not a whole lot to unpack here. The grant indicates that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Circuit Justice in charge of handling stay applications arising from the Tenth Circuit, referred Utah’s request to the full court instead of deciding it herself. This was an expected outcome–as mentioned in my previous post explaining the stay application process, full-court consideration is the most efficient way to dispose of the request and prevent any “appeals” or resubmissions that could happen when an individual Circuit Justice rules on a stay. That the Supreme Court granted the stay was also not surprising. As Rick Hasen notes here, it was very likely that the Court (including even the justices who would support expanding same-sex marriage rights1 ) would want to slow things down on such an important, far-reaching constitutional question.

So what does the grant yesterday tell us about how the Court may rule on the merits in Herbert v. Kitchen, when it is inevitably appealed from the Tenth Circuit? The answer is: very little. We do know that the Court will likely choose to hear the case–based on the requirements for successfully obtaining a stay (also detailed in the flowchart from my previous post), the Court would not have granted Utah its stay unless it thought there was a “reasonable probability” that four justices would grant certiorari when the case eventually winds its way up. We also know from the grant requirements that the full court thought there was a “fair prospect” that five justices might eventually overturn federal district Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling on the Utah same-sex marriage ban, probably because of his game-changing conclusion that same-sex marriage is a fundamental constitutional right–an issue that the Supreme Court itself assiduously avoided addressing in last year’s DOMA and Proposition 8 litigation.

Beyond these questions of probability, however, the grant itself contained no reasoning for the Justices’ decision and addressed none of the substantive arguments brought up by Utah and the same-sex couple plaintiffs, so it is hard to divine how they will rule on the merits. The criteria for granting a stay are different from the standards used for ruling on the substantive questions. The fact that it chose to hit the brakes on same-sex marriage in Utah now does not necessarily mean that the Court will strike down Judge Shelby’s ruling.

A more pressing question created by yesterday’s grant is what happens now to the 1,360 same-sex couples who received marriage licenses from the state–a majority of whom have already used the licenses to get legally married in the seventeen days before the Supreme Court halted the process. Interim Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a press conference yesterday afternoon that he “doesn’t know.” These couples are in “legal limbo,” “uncharted territory.”

My personal feeling is that yesterday’s stay should not erase or invalidate the hundreds of same-sex marriages that were legally carried out in Utah in the period between Judge Shelby’s initial December 20 ruling and the Supreme Court order. Up until yesterday, while Utah’s stay request was slowly moving its way up the federal courts, Judge Shelby’s decision striking down Amendment 3 was still controlling in the state, so these marriages did not take place in violation of any court order or state ban. A trickier question is what happens to the couples who obtained marriage licenses legally during those seventeen days but had not actually gotten married by the time that the Supreme Court issued the stay. We should fully expect further “offshoot” litigation on this matter.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Utah is still weighing proposals to bring in outside counsel to help with Kitchen, which will be scheduled for argument before the Tenth Circuit this spring. Outside help would probably be a wise idea, given the state’s well-documented bungling in the last few weeks. That Utah dropped the ball repeatedly on moving its stay application along–first by neglecting to ask Judge Shelby at the litigation stage for a stay of any possible ruling in favor of the same-sex couples, then by running to the Tenth Circuit for an emergency stay before Judge Shelby had even ruled on its request, then by waiting a full week to appeal the Tenth Circuit stay denial to Justice Sotomayor–is the reason why the state is now dealing with such a large number of marriages that may or may not be legal.

  1. For an example of a Supreme Court justice advocating for an incremental approach to the recognition of a constitutional right, look no further than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments on Roe v. Wade. She has repeatedly said that abortion rights should have been settled state-by-state rather than in one fell swoop, which in her opinion had the effect of polarizing the national discussion. A similar argument regarding strategy has played out amongst same-sex marriage proponents. []

[UPDATED] With Utah Stay Application Filed, Ball is Now in the Supremes’ Court [Infographic]

Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court is set to decide whether same-sex marriages in Utah, which have been conducted since a federal trial judge overturned on December 20 a state ban on such marriages, can continue while the case is being appealed, or whether they must cease for the time being.

After both Judge Robert Shelby and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied its application for an emergency stay, Utah took its request up to the Circuit Justice assigned to the Tenth Circuit, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, on December 31. Justice Sotomayor asked the plaintiffs to submit its response opposing the stay by noon, January 3. Their brief can be found here (courtesy of the Legal Times).

From here, Justice Sotomayor can choose to decide the stay herself, or she can refer the issue to the full Supreme Court. I’ve created a flowchart (click to enlarge) to help explain how a non-capital stay1 moves through the federal courts. The magenta box on the left lists out what a party must show in order to obtain a stay.

(This flowchart was created using information from Supreme Court Rule 22 on “Applications to Individual Justices” and the Supreme Court Public Information Office’s “Reporter’s Guide to Applications.” The latter includes a chart showing which Justices are assigned to which Circuits.) 

In terms of where in the process we are right now, Utah’s stay application is at the teal box labeled “Circuit Justice (Justice Sotomayor).”

There has been a lot of speculation in the last few days over whether Justice Sotomayor will keep the stay application for herself or bring in the rest of her colleagues, with many predicting that she will refer it to the full Court. As the chart shows, that seems to be the quickest, most efficient way to dispose of the application–once the full Court has voted on the stay, its decision is final.

Individual Circuit Justice rulings, meanwhile, are theoretically subject to “appeal.” If the Circuit Justice denies the stay, the party petitioning for a stay can resubmit the request to another individual Justice of its choosing (Supreme Court Rule 22.4, however, points out that this tactic is “not favored,” and the Justice to whom the request is resubmitted will usually then refer it to the full court, out of deference to the Circuit Justice and to defuse attempts at “justice shopping”). If the Circuit Justice individually grants the application, the party opposing the stay can then ask the full court to vacate the stay. Now, in practice, the Circuit Justices are accorded a great deal of deference in their individual decisions–Sotomayor, after all, did just individually grant a stay on a separate case two days ago–but the possibility that their rulings might end up being reviewed by the full Court anyway may incentivize them to “share.”

UPDATE: The Supreme Court granted Utah’s request for a stay this morning, halting same-sex marriages in the state until the Tenth Circuit has decided the case on appeal. The one-paragraph order, which can be found here, shows that Justice Sotomayor did in fact refer the stay request to the full court. The Supreme Court did not touch the merits of the case in its grant of the stay, providing no explanation of its decision or analysis of the two parties’ arguments. As Utah’s Fox 13 News reporter Ben Winslow notes, over 900 same-sex marriages have been conducted in the state since Judge Shelby’s initial ruling on December 20. Winslow reports that the Tenth Circuit expects to hear oral argument in the case this March.

  1. As opposed to capital stays, where a convicted individual has received the death penalty–these play out differently because of the nature of such cases []

At Fernandez v. California Oral Argument, Supreme Court Debates What It Means To Be Roommates

At yesterday’s oral argument over a warrantless search, Breyer tries to draw lines while Scalia seems to have made up his mind. Picture via The Atlantic.
At yesterday’s oral argument, Breyer tries to draw lines while Scalia seems to have made up his mind. Picture via The Atlantic.

Last term, the Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment cases made for some curious cross-aisle alliances, pitting a privacy-friendly Justice Scalia and his liberal colleagues Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan against a government-supporting Justice Breyer and the conservative bloc of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas (and sometimes Kennedy). Wednesday’s oral argument in Fernandez v. California, however, saw Breyer and Scalia falling back along more conventionally ideological lines, with the former attempting to balance a rather unsympathetic defendant’s rights against a domestic violence victim’s needs, and the latter coming out in favor of a more expansive reading of law enforcement’s investigatory powers.

Fernandez v. California stems from a 2009 encounter between Los Angeles police and a man suspected of committing robbery and gang-related assault, who was spotted near the crime scene and subsequently seen running into an apartment. After Fernandez’s live-in girlfriend, Roxanne Rojas, opened the door for officers, fresh bruises and blood visible on her body, Fernandez told them that they could not legally come inside. He was removed from the premises anyway based on suspicion of domestic violence, arrested and taken to the police station. Two officers then returned to the apartment without a warrant and received consent from Rojas to search the premises, where they found evidence that would later be introduced at Fernandez’s robbery and assault trial, resulting in his conviction. The question before the Supreme Court now is whether the police violated Fernandez’s Fourth Amendment rights by warrantlessly searching his home with only the permission of the co-tenant girlfriend, even though Fernandez had earlier told the police in no uncertain terms that they could not enter. (If so, the state would not have been able to use the incriminating evidence from the apartment at his trial.)

In 2006’s Georgia v. Randolph, the Supreme Court established that a co-occupant’s objection to the police search of a home overrides another co-occupant’s consent if both co-occupants are present. California argues that its search did not violate Randolph because Fernandez was absent at the time the police officers returned and Rojas, as the only present co-tenant then, had the right to open her home to whomever she wished to grant entry. The removal of Fernandez from the apartment–even if it was forcible–effectively nullified his refusal to consent to a search.

Fernandez, on the other hand, interprets Randolph to mean that once a physically present co-tenant has objected to the search, “an objection… remains in effect until officers learn that the objector no longer wishes to keep the police out of his home”–or until the police get a warrant. In other words, for the seven-year-old precedent to have any force, the police must not be allowed to gain consent for a warrantless search simply by carting an objecting tenant away from the premises.

This reading of Randolph appeared to be in trouble from the moment that Justice Breyer– whose Fourth Amendment jurisprudence typically reflects an optimistic view of the government using its investigatory powers in good faith–opened questioning with a hypothetical about a domestic abuse victim who is unable to ask the police to come investigate a shared home for evidence of the crime even after the assailant has been arrested, because there is no clear probable cause for a warrant and no consent from the violent co-tenant. Breyer is clearly troubled by Fernandez’s argument, which he believes would deny Rojas her rightful authority as co-occupant to admit a visitor into their home during the 500-plus days he spent in custody.

On the other hand, Breyer, who joined the majority (and authored a concurrence) in Randolph, also doesn’t want to undermine his previous position by giving free rein to law enforcement to change presences into absences. So he tries to reconcile his vote in Randolph with his unease in Fernandez with a compromise: the known objection of a tenant who is then removed from the house by law enforcement could remain valid for a limited “reasonable time” afterward (the exact definition of “reasonable time” to be decided by the lower courts), during which the police cannot search the house without a warrant.

Unfortunately for Breyer, none of his colleagues seem terribly receptive to this idea. Of the nine justices, Alito articulates the case against Fernandez most vociferously, suggesting at several points that Georgia v. Randolph was wrongly decided and ought to be overturned entirely. “I don’t understand why the fact that one is a joint tenant is not the end of the analysis. Why shouldn’t it be?” Justice Alito asked Fernandez’s lawyer, indicating his belief that present consent should always override a present objection, much less an absent one. For Alito, Randolph has got it reversed–since he can’t imagine having the authority to ever tell his co-tenant what visitors she could or couldn’t permit into the home, Rojas’ consent alone should have disposed of the entire case.

Justice Scalia, who was in last Term’s cases a champion of privacy interests and mistrustful of government in search and seizure cases, dissented in Georgia v. Randolph, in part over concerns that abusers would use the rule privileging present objections to prevent police from investigating domestic violence, over the wishes of their battered partners. Today, he returned to that stance, telling Fernandez he was asking for an overbroad extension of a narrow ruling. Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts (who dissented in Randolph) and Justice Kennedy (who was in the majority) treated Fernandez’s Fourth Amendment rights as virtually nonexistent in this situation, repeatedly stating that assault victims should not be deprived of the law enforcement assistance they might want to ask for in the abuser’s absence. The fact that Fernandez is basically the world’s worst roommate has made this an easier case for them to decide.

USA - Politics - Supreme Court Nominee Judge Sotomayor on Capitol Hill
Sotomayor thinks the police need to try harder before resorting to warrantless searches. Picture via The New Yorker.

With the conservative justices focusing mainly on the social customs of roommates and the rights of Fernandez’s co-tenant, it fell on Justice Sotomayor, the most vocal defender of Fernandez’s position yesterday, to point out that California’s proposed reading might grant law enforcement too much control in situations where they already have a great amount of power. Sotomayor questioned the wisdom of giving the police carte blanche to manipulate Randolph’s absence/presence test –“[a]ll they have to do is arrest and remove people”– and circumvent proper search and seizure procedures. When California’s lawyer told Justice Breyer that his “reasonable time” compromise would not be a sufficiently “clear answer” for law enforcement, Sotomayor interjected: “How about a clear answer? Get a warrant.” She reiterated this point again later: “I don’t know why that’s so difficult for police officers to understand. Your first obligation under the Fourth Amendment is to get a warrant.”

While that may be true in principle, there’s an argument to be made that the Roberts Court has been slowly weakening the warrant requirement over the years, and the unsympathetic facts of Fernandez’s case surely did not help his cause. From today’s argument, it looks as though the Supreme Court will reduce Georgia v. Randolph to “nothingness,” as Justice Ginsburg mused. Sotomayor may be able to convince Ginsburg and Kagan, who both showed some discomfort with the amount of control their conservative colleagues would hand to the police. She might also get Breyer’s vote if she can somehow figure out a test that is consistent with both his Randolph concurrence and his desire to limit it in situations like these. Without the support of Scalia, however, the list of justices supporting Fernandez’s claim is stuck at four, which, in the Supreme Court, is still a losing number.