This Is Why They Build Courthouses

Crossposted from the Prop 8 Trial Tracker

Over the holiday weekend, two op-eds appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post criticizing the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case. The op-eds, by Jonathan Rauch and Jonathan Capehart, have been getting a lot of attention – and even approving words from Maggie Gallagher.

But are the arguments in these op-eds valid? As I’ll explain, they’re far from it. Both present a deeply flawed assessment of the case itself, the politics of the case, and of the purpose of the judiciary itself.

Much more over the flip.

First up is Jonathan Rauch, whose op-ed in Saturday’s NYT titled “A ‘Kagan Doctrine’ on Gay Marriage” kicked off the recent debate:

ELENA KAGAN uttered neither the word “gay” nor “marriage” in her opening statement at the Senate confirmation hearings on her nomination to the Supreme Court, but she addressed the issue nonetheless. No, she didn’t say how she will vote when gay marriage comes before the court, as it may soon. What she did say was this:

“The Supreme Court, of course, has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals. But the court must also recognize the limits on itself and respect the choices made by the American people.”

Ms. Kagan may not have had gay marriage in mind when she made that statement, but it could not be more relevant. She seems to be saying that protecting minority rights is the Supreme Court’s job description, but also that a civil rights claim doesn’t automatically trump majority preferences. This is something absolutists on both sides of the gay marriage debate don’t like to hear, but it has the virtue of being right.

Rauch is guilty of the “both sides are the same” fallacy, calling those of us who support marriage equality “absolutists” alongside those who wish to deny equal rights. In Rauch’s mind, our arguments are essentially the same, and “serious” people like himself should stand apart from this debate entirely – or find some sort of half-solution that doesn’t provide equal rights, but avoids the need to have the necessary debate and battles to achieve equality.

He argues that Kagan is right that equal rights must be balanced against letting the voters decide matters, and that “judicial restraint” must be considered as well as equality.

It’s unclear whether Kagan would use this statement to rule against equality if and when Perry v. Schwarzenegger reaches the Supreme Court. But it is very clear that Rauch would like her to do exactly that:

This case is not primarily about the merits of gay marriage. It is primarily about who gets to decide. The plaintiffs say marriage is a civil right, and when a civil right is assailed, the Supreme Court has no choice but to take command. If the Supreme Court doesn’t protect minority rights, it abdicates its job.

Proposition 8’s defenders retort that gay marriage is not a civil right, because it is not marriage, or not marriage as defined by most Californians. If the court does not defer to the voters’ wishes, it oversteps its bounds.

Ms. Kagan seems to reject both forms of absolutism. Civil rights, she implies, are important, but so is judicial modesty, and a sensible judge balances the two. A sensible judge can say something like, “Same-sex marriage may indeed be a civil right, but not all civil rights demand immediate judicial intervention, and other important interests militate against imposing this one on the whole country right now.”

Notice what Rauch does here. He equates our side of the case – we who oppose Prop 8 – and the defendants in order to discredit us both. Instead of assessing the merits of the arguments, he seeks a moderate position which, like most moderate positions, actually serves the ends of the right-wing.

Rauch makes it sound like the desire to have the US Supreme Court step in and enforce the Constitution when a state is ignoring it is somehow “absolutist” or undermines the courts. This is a ridiculous claim which flies in the face of nearly 200 years of judicial precedent. Going all the way back to 1819 and the case McCulloch v. Maryland, the US Supreme Court has held that the Constitution is supreme to state law, with a few exceptions.

It’s worth nothing one of those exceptions is not the 14th Amendment. I’ve always felt it is one of THE most important amendments, maybe even more important than the First Amendment. The key phrase is as follows, bolding is mine:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

These two clauses, known as the “due process” clause and the “equal protection” clause, are at the heart of this trial. The plaintiffs argue – correctly – that they have been denied equal protection of the laws because of Prop 8, which discriminates against them and is therefore invalid under the 14th Amendment. Rauch would prefer we ignore this argument and let discrimination stand for the sake of “judicial restraint.” Notice also that the amendment specifies “states” – unlike some other amendments, whose applicability to the states has been uncertain, the 14th was always intended to apply directly to the states, giving the federal courts a role in enforcing the amendment over what a state or its voters might do.

Importantly, we’ve been here before. Within 10 years of the passage of the 14th Amendment, the US Supreme Court began refusing to implement the amendment. Their argument was that the courts needed to show “judicial restraint,” but in cases like US v. Cruikshank (no relation) the Supreme Court refused to apply the 14th Amendment, arguing that the amendment should have only a limited application to the states. In Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court even ruled that “separate but equal” was permissible. As a result, Jim Crow became established in the South as persistent discrimination and segregation was the law of the land.

In 1954, after over a decade of shifting judicial philosophies, the Supreme Court began to revive the 14th Amendment in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which as you know ruled that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment and expressly overturned the “separate but equal” formulation. At the time, critics of the decision felt that it had gone too far, that it had improperly shed “judicial restraint.” The same charge was leveled at the Supreme Court in 1967 when they overturned all bans on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, a case explicitly cited by Olson and Boies in their original lawsuit filing.

What we see is that Rauch’s argument legitimates discrimination. By placing “judicial restraint” above the 14th Amendment’s imperative to prevent state discrimination and denial of equal protection of the laws, he is repeating the hoary arguments made to oppose the Supreme Court’s decisive action that enabled the Civil Rights Movement to tear down the barriers of legalized segregation.

Rauch claims that the voters have a right to decide these questions, and that courts would be wrong to overstep those concerns. Yet the Supreme Court has already rejected that argument. The mandatory school segregation that was overturned in Brown and the interracial marriage bans that were overturned in Loving were the product of democratically-elected legislatures, and one could credibly argue that they were the expression of the will of the voters (keeping in mind of course than in many Southern states, African Americans were denied the right to vote).

In fact, when it comes to LGBT rights, the Supreme Court has already ruled that the Constitution trumps the voters. In 1996, the Supreme Court, led by Anthony Kennedy, handed down the Romer v. Evans decision, overturning a constitutional amendment approved by Colorado voters in 1992 that prevented Colorado from doing anything to protect or advance LGBT rights. Kennedy slammed Amendment 2 as being “unprecedented” and clearly motivated by animus toward LGBT people – one of the main reasons why that very issue has become so important in the Prop 8 trial.

This all goes back to a core principle of the US Constitution. Contrary to what Rauch seems to believe, the Constitution’s authors did not envision a democracy that was all-powerful. The Constitution’s very purpose was to both define as well as limit what government – and therefore, what the voters – could do. It absolutely did not suggest that the “will of the voters” was absolute or even of primary importance. Instead the Constitution produced strict limits on what both the government and the voters could do in the interest of protecting basic rights.

The 14th Amendment stems from this basic principle, and since the 1940s has been correctly interpreted by the Supreme Court to trump state laws and, therefore, the voters who either approved those laws or elected the legislators who passed those laws.

Rauch goes further and revives another talking point from the opposition to the 1950s Civil Rights Movement: that the Supreme Court was moving too fast and that we should slow down, wait, and let the public come to equality all on its own:

But the gay-marriage debate, while assuredly a civil rights argument, is much more than that. It is also a debate about the meaning of marriage, about the pace of change in a conflicted society and about who gets to decide. Whatever the activists on both sides say, nothing in the Constitution requires the Supreme Court to short-circuit the country’s search for a new consensus, either by imposing gay marriage nationwide or by slamming the door on it with an aggressively dismissive ruling. Sometimes the right answer for the courts is to step aside and let politics do its job.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Thurgood Marshall, and other Civil Rights leaders rejected this thinking. They argued, correctly, that it was the job of the courts to protect the rights of Americans whether it was the popular thing to do or not, whether the political system and the society were “ready” for it or not.

Of course, as we know from the recent history of what happens when marriage equality is put to a vote, it doesn’t seem that politics is “doing its job.” Instead we should let the courts do their jobs. This is why they build courthouses – to enable those being denied their equal rights to petition to force the courts to step in and provide relief.

Rauch’s argument flies in the face of this legal history and these political facts, and would permit discrimination to stand. It’s no wonder, then, that Maggie Gallagher praised Rauch’s op-ed:

This column by Jonathan Rauch is a real act of integrity: How many men in a legal same-sex marriage would publicly call on the Supreme Court not to strike down Prop 8, at least not yet? He calls Prop 8 unfair and unwise policy, but a judgment the people of California are entitled to make.

Right now, civil-union laws are being used to strike down marriage laws in courts; if you pass a civil-union law, gay-marriage advocates will use it in court to argue that only bigotry could explain why you are withholding marriage.

Rauch, on the other hand, recognizes that what he and others seek is not access to a merely legal construct, something created by government alone, but recognition by society of the value of his union as a marriage. Don’t short-circuit the conversation now taking place, he urges.

On that we agree.

Not surprisingly, Gallagher is wrong here – what marriage equality supporters seek is the recognition of their right to get married to a person of the same sex as themselves, a right that seems obvious under the 14th Amendment’s definition of “equal protection” and the precedents of cases like Loving v. Virginia. But it’s a telling sign of just how flawed Rauch’s op-ed was that Gallagher was quick to see in it an argument that boosted her defense of Prop 8.

Finally, there was Jonathan Capehart’s post at the Washington Post site on Monday, titled Could impending Prop 8 decision doom same-sex marriage? In it, Capehart takes Rauch’s op-ed and uses it as a basis to argue that the entire effort to undermine Prop 8 in the courts is too risky:

Given the current landscape, it would be astounding if the court overturned the will of the people as expressed through state constitutions, acts of the legislature and at the ballot box.

Capehart repeats Rauch’s error in seeing the “will of the people” as being more important than the US Constitution. But Capehart’s real concern is that a favorable ruling from Judge Walker could spark a backlash that would undermine marriage equality:

Legally speaking, the kindling is there for a controlled blaze confined to California or an inferno that could stop the national march toward marriage equality in its tracks possibly for decades either through a constitutional amendment (extremely difficult, but not impossible) or, as Rauch put it, through an “aggressively dismissive ruling” from the Supreme Court. All that’s needed is a spark. Right now, Judge Walker is the man holding the matches.

Capehart doesn’t assess the alternative, which is to simply let discrimination continue indefinitely. There’s no doubt that risks are involved with the legal strategy. But in a case like this, where Prop 8 is so flagrantly unconstitutional, and with two of the top constitutional lawyers in America – Ted Olson and David Boies – leading the case, it is a risk well worth taking. Again, these are why the federal courts exist – to take cases like this and apply the Constitution to ensure protection of rights.

Adam Bink has a good take on this over at Open Left, writing that:

As one colleague put it to me, we are creating the climate and momentum for a win, and must continue to do so.

That’s exactly right. Our movement must be ready for whatever Judge Walker rules, and whatever the Supreme Court ultimately rules. And part of being ready is building the movement and shaping the climate to favor a win. It’s how the Civil Rights Movement overcame the “go slow” advocates of “judicial restraint” in the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s what the LGBT rights movement needs to do here in the 2010s.

One thought on “This Is Why They Build Courthouses”

  1. And worth noting that at the Supreme Court level, the argument on same sex marriage is “already” won, at least according to Nino Scalia in his dissent on Lawrence, in which Kennedy overturned sodomy laws because they are based purely on animus, the key tack taken by Olson.

    Something on this subject really gripes me and that is the success of the Right in defining “Traditional Marriage” as an institution existing solely between a man and a woman, and for 5000 years.  This is a complete fabrication.  Sacramental (straight) marriage has only been around for 500 years or so and even thus there is evidence that at least in France, there were same sex marriages among knights.  Civil marriage, in which the state intervenes has been around for a shorter period and is heterosexual because the law defined it as such because of animus.  For the vast majority of the last 5000 years, true “Tradtional Marriage” has been what we might and can call “Common Law Marriage” and it  is not very complicated.  There are no statistics about who was involved, straight or gay, because there was no Church or State involvement.  Couples freely chose one another as one does one’s friends, and just moved in together.  That is true Traditional Marriage.  We are now just getting civil marriage to conform to the reality of marriage.    

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