People For the American Way Foundation

Supreme Court Action on Marriage Cases Is No Surprise

The Supreme Court's decision this morning to not hear appeals of any of the pending marriage equality appeals came as a surprise to some. But as PFAW Foundation's Supreme Court 2014-2015 Term Preview explained last month, most of the Justices may have strongly wanted to avoid taking these cases if at all possible:

Conservatives like Scalia and Thomas, who have in case after case shown their hostility to LGBT equality but may be unsure of how Kennedy would vote, might not be willing to risk a Supreme Court precedent that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. From their perspective, if they can't change the outcome around the country, why make it worse by adding a jurisprudential nightmare from the nation's highest court that would taint American law for decades to come?

For Justices likely to recognize the constitutional right to marriage equality, the calculation might be different. They, too, not knowing Kennedy's position, might not want to risk a 5-4 ruling in the "wrong" direction on a major constitutional and societal issue. But even if they could be certain of being in the majority, they might find advantages to having the Court stay out. Justice Ginsburg, for instance, has suggested publicly that Roe v. Wade went "too far, too fast," provoking a backlash that could otherwise have been avoided. If the legal question of marriage equality is being decided rightly in all the circuit courts, some Justices might rather leave well enough alone. In fact, Justice Ginsburg told a group of law students in mid-September that without a circuit split, she saw "no urgency" for the Court to take up the issue now, although she added that she expects the Court to take it up "sooner or later."

It looks like the "sooner or later" will be when – or if – a circuit court ever rules against same-sex couples seeking to vindicate their right to marry.

The Term Preview also discussed some of the specific legal issues that an eventual Supreme Court ruling could address, beyond the black-or-white question of whether same-sex couples can marry. For now, absent a circuit court ruling upholding a marriage ban and a subsequent decision by the Supreme Court to hear the appeal, these questions will remain unresolved at the national level. But they are important questions:

Exactly which constitutional right do the bans violate? While numerous courts have ruled in favor of same-sex couples, they have been anything but unanimous in their reasoning: Some have suggested that the bans violate the Due Process Clause, because the longstanding, fundamental right to marry includes the right to marry someone of the same sex. Other judges indicate that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they deny the right to marry based on the sex of the people seeking to get married. Still others suggest that the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because they discriminate against gays and lesbians. While the different legal rationales would all have the same immediate result (marriage equality), they could create very different legal precedents and have very different impacts down the line as lower courts consider other types of discrimination, whether aimed at gays and lesbians, at transgender people, or at others.

A Supreme Court ruling might decide what level of scrutiny the Equal Protection Clause requires for laws that discriminate against gay people, an issue not squarely faced in previous cases. Most government classifications are subject to – and easily pass – "rational basis" scrutiny by the courts: The law is constitutional as long as it's rationally related to some legitimate government interest. (The Court has said that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate purpose, which in the past has let it bypass the question as to whether anti-gay laws warrant more scrutiny from the courts.)

But a few types of laws trigger heightened Equal Protection scrutiny. Sex-based classifications are subject to intermediate scrutiny: They must be substantially related to an important government interest. Race-based classifications are generally subject to strict scrutiny, the highest level: They must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest. If the Court rules that laws discriminating against lesbians and gays warrant some level of heightened scrutiny, that would have an enormous impact nationwide on all kinds of laws that discriminate against lesbians and gays, not just marriage bans.

The Court's discussion of this issue could also shed light on whether eliminating private discrimination against LGBT people is (in the Court's eyes) a compelling government interest. This could have an enormous impact as courts consider right wing challenges to anti-discrimination laws on the basis of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or state-law analogs.

This last point is particularly important, given efforts by the far right to reframe anti-discrimination and women's health laws as attacks on religious liberty. As affiliate People For the American Way Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery wrote earlier today on Right Wing Watch:

[R]edefining "religious liberty" has become the central culture war issue and the primary legal and public relations strategy chosen by conservative evangelicals and their allies in the Catholic hierarchy to resist the advance of LGBT equality and restrict women's access to reproductive care.

This right-wing reframing effort might have been hurt by a strong Supreme Court ruling emphasizing the critical importance of ending discrimination against lesbians and gays.