The Supreme Court heard oral argument today on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which exclusively recognized marriages between a man and a woman in the state constitution. The consensus from Twitter and the networks seems to be that the court is unlikely to have five votes and probably won’t make a strong ruling either way. From SCOTUSblog:
The bottom line, in my opinion, is that the Court probably will not have the five votes necessary to get to any result at all, and almost certainly will not have five votes to decide the merits of whether Proposition 8 is constitutional. …
The Justices seem divided on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 on ideological lines, four to four – i.e., all the members other than Justice Kennedy. For the more liberal members of the Court, there was no clarity on how broadly they would rule. But Justice Kennedy seemed very unlikely to provide either side with the fifth vote needed to prevail. He was deeply concerned with the wisdom of acting now when in his view the social science of the effects of same-sex marriage is uncertain because it is so new. He also noted the doubts about the petitioners’ standing. So his suggestion was that the case should be dismissed.
Reason has a debate between Ilya Shapiro and Jonathan Adler over the federalist aspects of the ruling. Shapiro’s normally a big fan of federalism, but an overreaching federal government is not what’s at issue here:
… if it’s unconstitutional for California to discriminate based on sexual orientation when doling out marriage licenses, then a ruling against Prop 8 would simply vindicate individual constitutional rights. If, however, there’s a compelling reason for making the distinction—because, say, it promotes child-rearing—then California can keep doing what it’s doing. Either way, California’s power to regulate marriage isn’t implicated—just like its power over criminal law wasn’t in doubt in 2011 when the Court found the state’s ban on violent videogames to violate the First Amendment.
In sum, those who argue that federal courts have no business policing state marriage laws are forgetting that the Civil War Amendments, particularly the 14th, fundamentally changed—perfected—our federalism. Since 1868, when states violate individual rights, they have to answer to federal courts.
The arguments for holding Proposition 8 unconstitutional do not seek to vindicate a “right to marry” so much as they seek to alter the definition of what constitutes a marriage in the first place. Marriage has been understood to constitute the union of one man and one woman through most of human history. Indeed, this definition long predates the Constitution. Some cultures have recognized polygamous marriage, but sexual difference has been a core component of what constitutes a marriage in nearly every case.
As a consequence, there are plenty of judicially cognizable reasons why the people of a state may prefer not to define a marriage as anything other than the union of one man and one woman. Such a union is the only one capable of naturally producing offspring within the bounds of marriage. This is why the traditional definition of marriage has persevered throughout most of human history throughout most of the world. Many of us find this to be an unpersuasive justification for denying state recognition of same-sex couples, but this is not a sufficient basis to render such policies unconstitutional. Federalism requires that state governments are allowed to adopt unsound policies.
Today’s hearing is the first of two; tomorrow the court will consider the Defense of Marriage Act’s constitutionality.