Ten years ago today, I attended the Supreme Court oral argument in Lawrence v. Texas. Then, the constitutional argument had been honed to make it clear to the Court that striking down the Texas Homosexual Conduct law would be following the nation, not leading it. Then, the path to eradicating sodomy laws had been trod for 40 years, as state after state abandoned the criminalization of sexual intimacy among same-sex couples. Then, the state had no defense of its law except that a majority preferred it that way. Then, the gay-rights advocate was masterful, both passionate and deeply analytical, stumbling only briefly over one tangential question. Back then, while there was no certainty about the outcome because the swing Justices (Kennedy and O’Connor) had given nothing away, there was jubilation among gay-rights advocates that the Court would strike down sodomy laws.
The contrast to today’s oral argument in Hollingsworth v. Perry, which I also attended, could hardly be more vivid. Today, several Justices seemed to think that a constitutional resolution would be leading the nation, not following it. And it would be doing so, asserted Justice Alito, to end a debate over something that was newer than cell phones and the Internet. Today, opponents of gay marriage could raise vague doubts about the uncertainty in the “sociological evidence” on the effects of same-sex marriage, a point that Justice Kennedy reiterated (so much for the trial in the district court, whose findings weren’t even mentioned today). Unlike ten years ago, they could claim that “caution” alone was reason enough to go slowly. Today, the gay-rights advocate was on a mission, as he has been for four years, to strike a decisive blow for freedom and equality, but delivered an argument that was more rhetorical than deeply substantive. He stumbled, not over trivial questions, but over a seemingly obvious and important one: How does the Court decide when a liberty claim should be constitutionalized? When, in the words of Justice Scalia in the most heated exchange of the day, did excluding same-sex couples from marriage become unconstitutional? Today, while Ted Olson was better than his opponent, there was no historic mismatch between advocates, as there had been ten years ago. Today, as the crowd exited, there was palpable anxiety among same-sex marriage supporters, many of whom who were stunned that there weren’t at least five Justices who saw the justice of the cause. The perceived swing vote in the case, Justice Kennedy, was concerned that the Court would have to cast aside 2,000 years of history. He also waived away any comparison to bans on interracial marriage, a remark that disquieted the audience.
In the end, as is usually the case, the oral argument probably won’t have made the difference. This was simply a Court not yet ready to declare a right to same-sex marriage, no matter how effective the oral advocacy. Still, it was a shame that today’s argument did not focus on sexual-orientation discrimination, or possibly even sex discrimination (one argument to which Justice Kennedy seemed receptive). Charles Cooper, defending Prop 8, conceded that there was not another instance in which discrimination against gays and lesbians would even be rational. That opening went unexploited. In fact, therein lies an answer to Justice Scalia’s question about when it became unconstitutional to exclude gay couples from marriage. The answer is not found in fundamental rights, the favored path of today’s marriage litigants, but in the Equal Protection Clause, whose application has long been understood to evolve as our understanding of what constitutes purposeless and oppressive discrimination evolves. Almost no discrimination against homosexuals would have been “unconstitutional” in 1791 or 1868, according to courts then constituted. Today, even the leading opponent against same-sex marriage can’t say the same.
Here are some quick impressions, based on the oral argument, about what the Court is likely to do and likely not to do:
(1) There will be no sweeping 5-vote declaration of a fundamental right to marry for same-sex couples, and no five-vote majority to declare the exclusion of gay couples unconstitutional on Equal Protection grounds. There may be four Justices willing to say so, but Justice Kennedy is just not there yet. It’s clearer now than it was even yesterday that he thinks there’s a big difference between criminalizing private sexual conduct and promoting same-sex unions to equal status in marriage. The quest for a nationwide right to same-sex marriage, begun when this litigation was filed over the strong objections of gay-rights groups in 2009, is not likely to end successfully in this case.
(2) There will probably be no “California only” answer from five justices, striking down Prop 8 alone. Justice Kennedy dismissed that possibility as “odd.” Chief Justice Roberts was disdainful. The “Dear Justice Kennedy” opinion of the Ninth Circuit had no supporters today.
(3) There’s even less chance that there will be a “nine-state” decision, striking down only the marriage laws of the states that grant civil unions to same-sex couples, but not the status of marriage. Even some of the more liberal Justices were skeptical, quite reasonably, that a state might be “punished” for giving same-sex couples full rights except for the title of marriage. The Solicitor General’s position that the Court could order a nine-state answer now and deal with the other states at a later date sounded like a constitutional theory that had not yet evolved.
(4) The best possible outcome for same-sex marriage advocates at this point is probably to have the Court dismiss the case on standing grounds, vacating the Ninth Circuit’s opinion, and leaving the District Court’s order in place. The Prop 8 proponents have never been able to show a particularized, personal injury from the recognition of same-sex marriage. And, despite what the California Supreme Court may have decided for state law purposes, ballot proponents do not stand fully in the shoes of the state in defending the law. If the people of California don’t like the fact that their Governor and Attorney General refuse to enforce their laws, they have a political remedy. Or they can adopt a procedure for having a stand-in appointed. But that’s an internal state governance problem; it doesn’t create Article III standing.
Chief Justice Roberts seemed sympathetic to this line of reasoning – indeed, he prodded the reluctant lawyers on both sides to address it – as did several other Justices. But surprisingly, perhaps, Justice Kennedy was ambivalent: arguing at one point that the petitioners had standing by virtue of being the “official” defenders of the proposition, but arguing at another point that perhaps the Court should dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds.
I could see a split decision, with three Justices willing to uphold Prop 8 on the merits (Scalia, Thomas, and Alito), at least four Justices (Roberts, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer) and possibly six (add Kennedy and Ginsburg) voting to dismiss the case on some variant of jurisdictional grounds, and/or four willing to strike down Prop 8 on the merits if pushed to do so (Sotomayor, Kagan, Breyer, and Ginsburg). That means that we’ll most likely get a jurisdictional decision, with no clear win or loss for the ultimate cause, a vacated Ninth Circuit decision, and some large questions about the scope and effect of the District Court’s order. More litigation, and political struggle, to come.