Today’s rulings on two same-sex marriage cases by the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the federal issue of marriage equality, but left the ongoing debate over states’ rights up in the air.  The latter issue has been festering since the earliest days of the republic, and the passionate disagreement it has generated was a major factor in the tragedy of the Civil War.  As has happened many times before, the court was unable and/or unwilling to clearly define what is the purview of the federal government and what responsibilities should be delegated to the states.  This great ideological fissure in American politics is the Achilles heel of our national unity and future prosperity.

SCOTUS’ conservative majority, who are generally strong proponents for limiting federal authority, were in a quandary over these two cases.  The first challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996 by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Clinton, that blocked federal recognition of state-licensed same-sex marriages.  Since four of the conservative justices are staunchly anti-gay marriage, and the fifth (Anthony Kennedy) inclined towards the traditional definition (see:  What Is Anthony Kennedy Thinking?), a philosophical conflict arose between their views on marriage and their views on supporting states’ rights.

The second case presented a similar dilemma for the justices.  California’s Proposition 8 was passed in 2008 by voters that banned same-sex marriages.  Afterwards, lower court rulings invalidated it as unconstitutional.  Supporters of Prop 8 then decided to challenge the appellate decision before the highest court because the State of California had refused to do so.  If the conservative majority had overturned the lower courts and ruled Prop 8 as constitutional, they would have had to exercise federal authority over that of a state.

Here’s what the Supreme Court decided in these two cases.  From:  Supreme Court strikes down Defense of Marriage Act, paves way for gay marriage to resume in California

The court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to gay couples who are legally married in their states, including Social Security survivor benefits, immigration rights and family leave.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision, said that the act wrote inequality into federal law and violated the Fifth Amendment’s protection of equal liberty.

“DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal,” he wrote.

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In the second case, the court said that it could not rule on a challenge to Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage in California passed by voters there in 2008, because supporters of the ban lacked the legal standing to appeal a lower court’s decision against it.

The court did not rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage, but the effect of the decision will be to allow same-sex marriage to resume in California. That decision was also 5-4, written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

For an alternative perspective, see:  In DOMA Ruling, Gay Rights, Not States’ Rights, Takes the Day

2 thoughts on “SCOTUS’ marriage rulings resolved equality issue, but left big divide over states’ rights

  1. Although the issue of marriage equality, per se, has never been high on my personal agenda, this pair of decisions is cause to rejoice, indeed, as they serve the cause of human rights and social justice.

    And therein lies the rub, coming, as they do, just twenty four hours after the Court eviscerated enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, sadly defining a mixed week for our emotions.

    Given the high profile support for marriage equality by many leading corporations, there may well be a case to be made the Court majority followed their instructions from corporate America in both instances.

    ‘A cynic?’ Moi?


    • I share your sentiments on marriage equality. It doesn’t affect me personally, but I support it on principle. Yesterday was a good day.

      The gutting of Voting Rights on the previous day was far more significant. I was so angry at the decision it made me lose sleep. This blog reflected my outrage with several highly critical posts.

      Regarding the motivations of the court, I think it’s more complicated. SCOTUS’ most corporatist justice John Roberts, along with Anthony Kennedy, each split their votes on the two cases. If they were purely acting for corporate interests, their votes would have been more consistent.

      While a corporatist motive cannot be discounted, two other factors were more influential to the outcome – IMO. The first being social conservatives’ religious aversion to same-sex marriage, and the second being perverse laissez-faire capitalist animus towards the federal government which manifests itself as “states’ rights.”

      The last point is the more insidious motive, which is further explained in this article.


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