The Supreme Court and Prop 8

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president and California passed the unconscionable Proposition 8. Four years later, Barack Obama has been re-elected, but the legal status of same-sex couples in California remains in limbo.

And that limbo continues for at least several more months, because today the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear the Prop 8 case.

This is a surprise, at least to me. It was nearly certain the Court would choose to hear one of the DOMA Section 3 cases, but it wasn’t certain what they would do about Prop 8. The issue before the Court with Section 3 of DOMA is potentially narrow: whether the federal government must recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who were legally married in states that allow it. This wouldn’t have any effect on states that discriminate against same-sex couples with regard to marriage. The issue before the Court with Prop 8 is, potentially, more sweeping: whether any state in the country has the right to prevent same-sex couples from marrying.

That’s not the way the Prop 8 case came up to the Court from the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit struck down Prop 8 on narrow reasoning: that once a state grants same-sex couples the right to marry, it can’t then take that right away. The only state where those circumstances are relevant is California, so the decision got the job done on as narrow grounds as possible in order to prevent being overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the U.S. Supreme Court can rule as broadly or as narrowly as it wishes on case before it. For instance, in the Citizens United case, the parties came to the Supreme Court on a pretty narrow issue: whether “electioneering communications” — in that instance, a political documentary — could be prohibited from airing on TV within 30 days of a primary election. But the Court decided, on its own accord, to broadly overturn a century of campaign finance law.

The Court can do one of several things in the Prop 8 case. It could rule that:

(1) The U.S. Constitution guarantees that same-sex couples have the right to get married. This would be a sweeping ruling that would probably lead to renewed calls for a constitutional amendment allowing states to discriminate against same-sex couples. Such an amendment would not likely get the 2/3 congressional majority it would need in order to be passed to the states, but there could be “massive resistance” in some states (let’s say, the southern states), where government officials may simply refuse to marry same-sex couples. This is the least likely ruling.

(2) Same-sex couples have no constitutional right to get married. States are free to allow it, but they don’t have to. In other words, we’d have the status quo, and marriage equality would continue its state-by-state progression. In 2016, there would probably be a ballot initiative in California to overturn Prop 8, and it would probably pass.

(3) The opponents of Prop 8 lack standing to argue the case. Interestingly, the Court directed the parties to brief this question. After Judge Walker struck down Prop 8, the state of California refused to appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit; Prop 8’s opponents asked the Ninth Circuit if they could argue it instead. The Ninth Circuit ruled, on the advice of the California Supreme Court, that it could. But the U.S. Supreme Court could find that the Prop 8 opponents are not a party to the case, in which case the Ninth Circuit’s Prop 8 ruling would be invalidated. It’s not clear what would happen then – would Judge Walker’s broad decision remain in effect? Or would it only apply to the couples who actually argued the case?

(4) Prop 8 is unconstitutional, but only because of the circumstances specific to California. In other words, it could affirm the Ninth Circuit’s decision.

I’m not sure the Court will do this. To be honest, the Ninth Circuit’s decision was a little disingenuous. The Ninth Circuit reached the right decision — that Prop 8 is unconstitutional — but it was a bit too clever. It doesn’t really make sense that the constitutional right to marry depends on whether a couple previously had the right to marry or not. The court, citing Romer v. Evans, says that taking away a pre-existing right is evidence of animus, and that animus is not a valid reason for taking away a right. But the people who didn’t want gay couples to get married after Prop 8 are the same people who didn’t want gay couples to get married before Prop 8. Why was it animus to believe so after Prop 8 passed, but not before? It doesn’t make sense, and I suspect a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court agrees, no matter how they feel about the substantive right at issue.

Then again, the Ninth Circuit did base its ruling on Romer, which said this very thing. So it’s possible that Kennedy (who wrote Romer) along with Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan could uphold the Ninth Circuit’s ruling using Romer as precendent.

But why would it do so? Why not just refuse to hear the case and let the Ninth Circuit’s decision stand? It takes four votes for the Supreme Court to hear a case, and we have no idea which justices voted to hear this one. If it was the four conservatives, perhaps they think they can win Kennedy over. Or Kennedy himself, who, for good and for ill, doesn’t seem to know the meaning of judicial restraint, might have voted to hear the case in order to put the Court’s own stamp on things. We have no way of knowing.

All we know for sure is that same-sex couples in California have been on a roller coaster over the last four years. Their hopes have been raised and dashed repeatedly. Last week it seemed that Prop 8 might soon be in history’s dustbin; the same seemed true earlier today. Instead, these couples will have to wait for justice until at least the end of June.

And justice delayed is justice denied.