History happened today. Will you remember where you were when the same-sex marriage decisions came down? I will. I was inside the Court when we all sat up somewhat shocked to hear the first case of the day was Obergefell v. Hodges. Again, I am lousy at predicting what cases we’ll get decisions on each day. This fact is already entered into the record. But because it was a decision of such importance, for the first time, I stopped writing, listened, and looked around to see how the audience, the public, were not only hearing but experiencing what I was hearing.
It wasn’t obvious from the start of Kennedy’s reading of the majority (made up of the four liberal justices) decision that it would come out on the side of the same-sex couples, many of which were in the Court to hear their case. He started off referencing the “millennia” of the institution of marriage. Those who listened to the oral arguments back in March will recall Kennedy used this word a lot to question Mary Bonauto, the attorney for the same-sex couples, on why the definition of marriage should be expanded to include same-sex couples when, for so long, it has been reserved to one man-one woman.
Kennedy quickly addressed the legal justification for supporting the same-sex couples. The majority ruled same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry, just as opposite sex couples do. The Due Process clause and Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment protect this right and states must recognize the marriage licenses of couples. To the majority, the definition of marriage is not static and has never been. It has evolved from a time when women were married off to men chosen by their parents for financial gain, where their rights were subsumed to men (coverture), to one that primarily served procreative purposes, and finally to the version that exists today – marry who you love for whatever reason you want. Such personal choice has been celebrated in a patchwork system where some states allow gay marriage while others do not. But today’s decision mandates uniformity in legal doctrine. According to the majority, “A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”
Emboldening the majority’s defense of their opinion is the belief that same-sex couples with children deserve the dignity and eradication of stigma that will flow from not simply social norms and practices, but legal acceptance of their unions from the states in which they live. Yes, a federal decision on this matter quashes public debate and takes the political decision-making power out of the hands of states, some moving faster on same-sex marriage legislation than others. On that point, the majority said, “The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. This is why ‘fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’” (The latter quote is cited in the decision from West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette)
It was at this moment that I stopped and looked around at the faces in the Court. Listening with smiles and quiet tears were several people sitting near me. I saw the petitioners and a member of the clergy sitting, perhaps appropriately, on opposite sides of the aisle in the general public area. Justice Stevens was in the Court as well. In the seats of the Supreme Court bar, which are front and center inside the Court, was notable same-sex marriage advocate and U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Pam Karlan, Mary Bonauto, and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. The Court often feels like it’s in an unnecessary state of lock down – especially on decision days – so the security marshals ban celebrations, cheers, cries, or any other expression. But the feeling was jubilation, complete and total satisfaction. Once dismissed, many near me stood up, hugged, and wiped away tears.
As jubilant and electrified as many nearby were, the subsequent dissent read by Chief Justice Roberts killed any and all enthusiasm in the room. Roberts may have read his dissent – one of four dissents written by every member of the minority group – to remind everyone that yesterday’s Obamacare ruling is not the liberal pivot you may have thought you were getting from the Roberts Court. I wrote about the potential for this pivot just last night after the King case was announced. In his blistering dissent that lasted as long, if not longer, than the time it took Kennedy to read the majority opinion, he openly threw shine on his bench mates: “Today, five lawyers have ordered states to change their laws,””Just who do we think we are?”
The power to decide laws defining marriage has and should forever be a power held by the states, derived from the people, according to Roberts’ dissent. “This Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us.” This is the default response the conservative justices often give in federalist cases like this one.
What stung the most and hit the people who’d just been told they are equal in the eyes of the law the hardest was his final paragraph: “Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause.” Further, “If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”
The “acceptance” line read to a class of people for whom acceptance both socially and constitutionally is so seldom protected by the Federal government, was the hardest to watch wash over those sitting near me.
Roberts may have gotten the last word in but the same-sex and LGBTQ community and allies gathered together in the biggest crowd of people I’ve ever seen outside the SCOTUS, got the last laugh. They have legal protections in two fundamental Constitutional principles. This decision came down at the perfect time as some cities celebrate their Pride Day this weekend and, for thousands of others, their celebrations come in the form of wedding receptions and honeymoons.