History at the Supreme Court

SCOTUSblog
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November 30, 2012
Issues: 

At their Conference today, the Justices will consider petitions raising federal constitutional issues related to same-sex marriage. These are the most significant cases these nine Justices have ever considered, and probably that they will ever decide.

I have never before seen cases that I believed would be discussed two hundred years from now. Bush v. Gore and Obamacare were relative pipsqueaks. The government’s assertion of the power to prohibit a loving couple to marry, or to refuse to recognize such a marriage, is profound. So is the opposite claim that five Justices can read the federal Constitution to strip the people of the power to enact the laws governing such a foundational social institution.

The cases present a profound test of the Justices’ judgment. The plaintiffs’ claims are rooted in the fact that these laws rest on an irrational and invidious hatred, enshrined in law. On the other hand, that describes some moral judgments. The Constitution does not forbid every inequality, and the people must correct some injustices (even some grave ones) themselves, legislatively.

The striking feature of these cases – not present in any others I have ever seen – is that that they would have been decided by the Justices’ predecessors one way and would be decided by the Justices’ successors another way.

The painful but sometimes unspoken truth is that seminal Supreme Court rulings sometimes reflect the era in which they were decided. In 2012, it is ridiculous to believe that the government could ban inter-racial marriage. But that was the law in much of the country for most of its history. In fact, it was a serious argument, and there were a number of similar laws on the books, when the Court declared them unconstitutional in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia. Society moved over the course of our history, and so did the Court’s understanding of the Constitution.

Here, the argument that the Framers of the Constitution would have recognized constitutional rights related to same-sex marriage is silly. In fact, the claims of same-sex marriage advocates were hopeless in this Court – both because of its conservativism but also because of social attitudes – as recently as five years ago.