The news late last week that the Supreme Court would hear an appeal from the Sixth Circuit ruling upholding bans on same-sex marriage in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee brought to mind the Seventh Circuit ruling last fall written by Judge Posner. Mark Joseph Stern writing in Slate noted that suddenly there was a “race” among judges to …”write the one marriage equality opinion that history will remember.” But Stern wrote
Thursday’s ruling by 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner, which struck down Indiana’s and Wisconsin’s gay marriage bans, is a different beast altogether. In his opinion, Posner does not sound like a man aiming to have his words etched in the history books or praised by future generations. Rather, he sounds like a man who has listened to all the arguments against gay marriage, analyzed them cautiously and thoroughly, and found himself absolutely disgusted by their sophistry and rank bigotry. The opinion is a masterpiece of wit and logic that doesn’t call attention to—indeed, doesn’t seem to care about—its own brilliance. Posner is not writing for Justice Anthony Kennedy, or for judges of the future, or even for gay people of the present. He is writing, very clearly, for himself.
Ironically, by writing an opinion so fixated on the facts at hand, Posner may have actually written the one gay marriage ruling that the Supreme Court takes to heart.Other, more legacy-minded judges have attempted to sketch out a revised framework for constitutional marriage equality, granting gay people heightened judicial scrutiny and declaring marriage a fundamental right. But Posner isn’t interested in making new law: The statutes before him are so irrational, so senseless and unreasonable, that they’re noxious to the U.S. Constitution under almost anyinterpretation of the equal protection clause.
I spent time this morning reading Judge Poster’s opinion. It is readable and understandable even by non-lawyers. He takes each argument made by Indiana and then Wisconsin against same-sex marriage one at a time and uses precedent, social science, and history to demolish them. Posner sets out to answer four questions.
Does the challenged practice involve discrimination, rooted in a history of prejudice, against some identifiable group of persons, resulting in unequal treatment harmful to them?
Is the unequal treatment based on some immutable or at least tenacious characteristic of the people discriminated against (biological, such as skin color, or a deep psychological commitment, as religious belief often is, both types being distinct from characteristics that are easy for a person to change, such as the length of his or her fingernails)? The characteristic must be one that isn’t relevant to a person’s ability to participate in society.
Does the discrimination, even if based on an immutable characteristic, nevertheless confer an important offsetting benefit on society as a whole?
Though it does confer an offsetting benefit, is the discriminatory policy overinclusive because the benefit it confers on society could be achieved in a way less harmful to the discriminated-against group, or underinclusive because the government’s purported rationale for the policy implies that it should equally apply to other groups as well?
Throughout his decision, Judge Posner concentrates on children and marriage. The same persons who argue against same-sex marriage are often the same persons who argue that the state needs to encourage heterosexual marriage to provide stability to children.
Our pair of cases is rich in detail but ultimately straight- forward to decide. The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction— that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously. To the extent that children are better off in families in which the parents are married, they are better off whether they are raised by their biological parents or by adoptive parents. The discrimination against same-sex couples is irrational, and therefore unconstitutional even if the discrimination is not subjected to heightened scrutiny, which is why we can largely elide the more complex analysis found in more closely balanced equal-protection cases.
In Indiana a same-sex couple can adopt while in Wisconsin, one member of a same-sex couple can adopt. So the logical conclusion is that marriage is just as important for same-sex couples with children as for heterosexual couples with families. And he points out that those who say that same-sex marriage will some how erode or damage heterosexual marriage need only to look at the 10 year history in Massachusetts to see that there is no impact at all.
Judge Posner’s decision is full of “zingers” most aimed with impatience at irrational argument. But he also takes aim at Justice Scalia citing his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas which struck down laws against sodomy.
…But Justice Scalia, in a dissenting opinion in Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 586, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, thought not. He wrote that “principle and logic” would require the Court, given its decision in Lawrence, to hold that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Id. at 605.
In the end, Judge Posner can find no rational argument against same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments on two questions: The right to marry and the right to have out-of-state marriages recognized. Because there are four states in the appeal with four different questions, the Supreme Court in accepting the appeals wrote the questions they will try to answer. Some in the legal community were alarmed, but the New York Times quotes Harvard Law professor, Lawrence Tribe
“The court’s order represents good housekeeping,” said Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard.
But Professor Tribe also voiced a small note of caution.
“The rephrased questions,” he said, “technically leave open a middle path along which the court would prevent states from discriminating against same-sex couples lawfully married in their home states without requiring any state to take the affirmative step of issuing its own marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”
I haven’t seen the appeal documents, but if the arguments are anything like those from Indiana and Wisconsin and I assume they are as those are the arguments being made nationally, the Supreme Court need to look no further than Judge Posner’s decision for answers and require the right to marry in all states. And, after all, Justice Scalia has already concluded that once sodomy laws are found unconstitutional, same-sex marriage must follow. I predict a 7-2 decision in favor of the right to marry. We will see in June if I am correct.
Photograph: Jabin Botsford/The New York Times