Category archives: The Courts

Analyzing Tony Kennedy: My only Power Lunch

by Robert Morrison

October 8, 2014

Tony Kennedy had just been confirmed to a life appointment on the U.S. Supreme Court in late 1987 when I got an invitation to lunch from a lawyer in a well-respected Washington firm. John Connolly was a man I had never met. Mr. Connolly, I was informed, was Pat Buchanan’s brother-in-law. The message my assistant gave me was that this estimable gentleman just wanted to thank me for my efforts on behalf of Judge Robert Bork.

Earlier that year, we had been through a brutal confirmation battle. The good and decent Bob Bork, an eminent constitutional scholar, had been savagely attacked in the mass media.

Liberal activists had left no stone unturned or uncast in their hunt for anything to stop Judge Bork from being confirmed as President Reagan’s third Supreme Court nominee. They had failed to derail Chief Justice Rehnquist, though they slimed him. They never laid a glove on the beloved Justice Antonin Scalia. Everyone loves “Nino,” it seems.

But they were primed for Bob Bork. No sooner had President Reagan announced his choice on July 1, 1987 then Ted Kennedy burst onto the Senate floor with a scurrilous and scandalous attack. Thus was born “Borking.”His video rental records were ransacked by liberal activists — those famous advocates of privacy rights. Civil liberties proponents looked the other way as a Democratic senator demanded Judge Bork describe his religious beliefs while he was under oath.

I had prayed for Judge Bork. He was one of America’s most distinguished (Yale) professors of law and a most highly regarded judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Because he had criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling in the infamous Roe v. Wade case of 1973, Kennedy charged the judge with being anti-woman.

This was the first appearance of the “war on women” theme that liberals have been pushing. Ted Kennedy was a famous respecter of women, as all those whom he had pawed and preyed upon surely knew. In those years when he was posing as a champion of women, Kennedy and one of his Senate boys had even pursued women under the tables at one of Washington’s more fashionable eateries. I think it was a place called Mon Oncle, or some such.

Judge Bork had had to endure Ted Kennedy’s calculated rudeness as the Massachusetts lawmaker refused to call him anything but “Mr. Bork.” Bullying and berating, Ted grilled the judge about his ruling in an interstate trucking case.

I was in the Senate hearing room as Ted Kennedy, of all people in America, bored in on the fine points of interstate highway driving. Jimmy Carter’s campaigners had made sure in 1980 that all Americans knew that it was Kennedy who had abandoned a young woman to die of asphyxiation after he drove his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick back in 1969.

I had hoped the Judge would stand up at the witness table and ask his Grand Inquisitor if it could be true: “Are you really questioning my judgment in a traffic safety case, Mr. Kennedy?” But the Judge was ever the gentleman and, like Aslan the Lion, he let himself be led to slaughter by these scampering tormentors.

The reward for my work was to be this “Power Lunch” with an honest Washington lawyer. I seem to recall it was the Occidental, at the Willard Hotel. I do not remember what I ordered for what was to be my only Power Lunch in thirty years, but I remember what Mr. Connolly taught me then.

Since deceased, this practiced Washington power attorney expanded on the choice of Supreme Court justices and what we as pro-life conservatives should seek in a nominee.

He had the highest praise for the recently-cast down Judge Bork. But he had this warning:

Bob Bork is so intelligent and so honest that he might have found a better constitutional basis for abortion. Remember, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee — under oath — that he had no opinion on abortion as such, he had merely done what many liberal constitutional scholars had done: He critiqued the Supreme Court’s reasoning in this case.

I knew John Connolly was right about those liberals who had criticized the opinion that Harry Blackmun had managed to cobble together with smelly gluepot and used string, rather like Mr. Dick’s Kite in Dickens’ David Copperfield.

Blackmun’s opinion was dismissed by a number of serious students of the Constitution, starting with Yale Law School’s John Hart Ely.

Ely was a famous constitutional law professor (and personally pro-abortion). Ely had said [Roe is] “bad constitutional law, or rather … it is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.”

Then, there was this liberal’s analysis of Blackmun’s opinion in Roe that showed why even the liberal clerks at the Supreme Court were calling the ruling “Harry’s abortion.”

Archibald Cox’s liberal credentials could hardly have been better. He was virtually a legal advisor to the Kennedys. He had earned martyrdom among liberals when, as Independent Prosecutor in the Watergate Affair, he had been fired by then-Solicitor General Robert H. Bork. But even this distinguished Harvard Law professor dismantled Blackmun’s shoddy legal reasoning and even worse history:

Blackmun’s opinion, Cox wrote;

“fails even to consider what I would suppose to be the most important compelling interest of the State in prohibiting abortion: the interest in maintaining that respect for the paramount sanctity of human life which has always been at the center of Western civilization, not merely by guarding life itself, however defined, but by safeguarding the penumbra, whether at the beginning, through some overwhelming disability of mind or body, or at death.”

Cox further argued, as National Review publisher Jack Fowler tells us: “The failure to confront the issue in principled terms leaves the opinion to read like a set of hospital rules and regulations, whose validity is good enough this week but will be destroyed with new statistics upon the medical risks of child-birth and abortion or new advances in providing for the separate existence of a fetus… . Neither historian, nor layman, nor lawyer will be persuaded that all the prescriptions of Justice Blackmun are part of the Constitution.”

All of this was part of my post-confirmation luncheon and tutorial with John Connolly.

But then he went on to reassure me that it might all be for the best. “Bob Bork is a racehorse. We don’t need a justice on the Supreme Court who is a thoroughbred. We need a mule. We need someone like Tony Kennedy who will patiently pace along for twenty, thirty years. Just a mule who will pull the barge along the canal day in and day out. The U.S. Supreme Court is a dangerous place for someone like Bob Bork who views it as ‘an intellectual feast.’  Better an unimaginative plodder like Tony Kennedy. Better a mule than a racehorse.”

I learned a great deal in my Power Lunch with that good man, John Connolly. I wish he were still here. I would have pointed out to him the record of nearly thirty years of our “mule” on the Supreme Court.

The problem is this: When the mules get to the U.S. Supreme Court, they start thinking they are all racehorses. 

In the name of religious rights for prisoners

by Travis Weber

October 7, 2014

Today oral argument will be heard by the Supreme Court in Holt v. Hobbs, a case in which a Muslim prisoner is seeking to grow a ½ inch beard in compliance with his religious faith. The prison policy at issue actually permits ½ inch beards, but only for medical reasons. For this marginalization of his religion, Mr. Holt has sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and is asking the Court to apply strict scrutiny (the same high standard of protection for religious rights required by RFRA and affirmed by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby) and protect his religious rights in the face of a discriminatory prison policy.

Many see the importance of protecting religious rights for prisoners, including those who have personally benefitted and come to faith through access to religious programs in prison. My law school colleague Jesse Wiese, now advocating for prisoners at the Justice Fellowship, is one of these; he has written about his experiences in support of Mr. Holt’s religious claim in this case. A win for Mr. Holt under RLUIPA in this case will protect all prisoners, regardless of faith. Along with protecting a Muslim prisoner who wants to grow a beard to a reasonable length (in keeping with the prison’s need to maintain order and discipline), the application of strict scrutiny here will strengthen the law’s protections for Jewish prisoners seeking dress or grooming accommodations, or those seeking access to Bible studies in prison. As it is said, a win for religious freedom for one is a win for religious freedom for all.

Moreover, a win for Mr. Holt here will strengthen protections for religious exercise in public spaces in the United States, something that groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation just can’t stand. Religion always has occupied a unique role in the public life of our country. We can expect the Supreme Court to again affirm that principle with a ruling for Mr. Holt in this case.

An Inescapable and Irrepressible Conflict

by Rob Schwarzwalder

October 6, 2014

The Supreme Court today has “turned away appeals from five states looking to prohibit gay marriage, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in those states and likely others — but also leaving the issue unresolved nationally.” So now same-sex “marriage” is legal in 30 states plus D.C.

My boss Tony Perkins issued a thoughtful statement about the ruling earlier today. In part, he said, “As more states are forced to redefine marriage, contrary to nature and directly in conflict with the will of millions, more Americans will see and experience attacks on their religious freedom.” Sadly, he’s dead right.

There are a number of dimensions to this issue, one of which was articulated by Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary in an article on September 24: Homosexuality is “now inescapable for every congregation, every denomination, every seminary, and every Christian organization. The question will be asked and some answer will be given. When the question is asked, any answer that is not completely consistent with the church’s historical understanding of sexual morality and the full affirmation of biblical authority will mean a full embrace of same-sex behaviors and same-sex relationships. There is no third way, and there never was.”

Two observations: First, Dr. Mohler is right with respect to the inevitability of division within the believing church over this issue. Christians will choose to be faithful to Scriptural teaching or they won’t. There is not, as he notes, nor will there ever be, any middle ground between obedience and submission to the revealed will of God and rebellion against it.

Second, I’m haunted by the memory of William Seward’s comment, immediately before the Civil War, that strife between North and South over slavery constituted “an irrepressible conflict.”

Millions of Americans simmer with resentment at the coerced redefinition of marriage the courts are imposing on them, despite referenda in dozens of states where they have affirmed the traditional definition of marriage quite explicitly. The Dred Scott decision did not decide the issue of human bondage. The Roe v. Wade decision has not decided the issue of abortion on demand. And the continued federal court confusion over same-sex unions only postpones a day of legal reckoning that could create a measure of civic sundering unwitnessed in our nation for decades.

Even if the Supreme Court has valid reasons for postponing their decision on this issue, postponement is not resolution. I fear that whatever decision the Supremes finally reach will not resolve it, either.

Supremes Dodge Most Important Issue Before Them — Marriage

by Peter Sprigg

October 6, 2014

The Supreme Court has declined to take up any of the pending same-sex “marriage” cases before them.

There is bad news and good news in this decision. The bad news is that these states have been denied the opportunity to defend their legitimate power to define marriage before the Supreme Court. The good news is that the Supreme Court does not seem to be as eager as many people assumed to issue a “Roe v. Wade“-type decision redefining marriage.

This decision reflects cowardice on the part of the Supreme Court. People on both sides of the marriage debate agree that the constitutional issues that have been raised should be addressed by the highest court in the land. The Court is right to fear a backlash if they impose a redefinition of marriage on all fifty states; but they are wrong to just let the lower courts do their dirty work for them.

The decision is baffling on several levels. It is hard to understand why the Court heard the case (Hollingsworth v. Perry) challenging California’s Proposition 8 in 2013 (then declined to rule on the merits because of standing issues), but is refusing much clearer cases now. Some say they are waiting for “circuit split” on the issue, but one already exists — the Eighth Circuit upheld Nebraska’s marriage amendment in 2006 (Citizens for Equal Protection v. Bruning). Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s own “dismissal for want of a substantial federal question” of a same-sex “marriage” case out of Minnesota in 1972 (Baker v. Nelson) remains binding precedent until the Supreme Court itself explicitly overrules it.

Everyone needs to be reminded that the question of whether redefining marriage is good public policy is separate from the question of whether the Constitution of the United States mandates such a redefinition. Even those who favor redefining marriage should understand that such a radical social change is more likely to be accepted if it is adopted through the democratic process, rather than imposed from on high by a court.

One thing is clear — anyone who claims to know what the Supreme Court is thinking is wrong.

FRC Files Amicus Brief in Reed v. Town of Gilbert

by Travis Weber

September 22, 2014

Today, Family Research Council filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

In this case, a Gilbert, Arizona sign ordinance discriminated against certain signs based on the content of the signs — whether they were political, ideological, and directional. Directional signs were placed under more severe restrictions.

A local church — Good News Community Church — and its pastor — Clyde Reed – needed to announce the times and locations of their services, but because their announcement signs (which directed individuals to a public school were services were being held) were deemed directional, the church was severely hampered in getting its message out.

Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church sued to vindicate their constitutional rights. The lower courts ruled against them, so they have now taken their case to the Supreme Court.

In our brief, filed in support of Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church, we argue that the town does regulate signs differently based on their content, for politics, ideology, and directions are all matters of differing content. Well-established Supreme Court jurisprudence bars content-based restrictions on speech unless the government can meet strict scrutiny — which says that unless the government regulation advances a compelling government interest, and this is done in the least restrictive way possible – the government regulation cannot stand. We conclude that because there are content-based restrictions on speech in this case, the Supreme Court should send this case back to the district court to determine if the town can meet strict scrutiny.

A win for Pastor Reed and Good News Community Church in this case will help advance a strong interpretation of First Amendment free speech rights, which is good not only for small congregations like Good News Community Church, but for all who wish to speak free from government interference. Ensuring an open marketplace of ideas in which all voices are protected and can speak freely is what the First Amendment is all about.

Our press release is here, and our brief can be read here.

A Tale of Two…Groups Which Voluntarily Relinquished their Freedom to Associate

by Travis Weber

September 3, 2014

Several days ago, the organizers of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade announced they will permit a group composed of gay NBC employees to march in their annual event with a banner identifying themselves as gay. By now, we are used to such tidbits of news. But this is significant for other reasons.

Back in the 1990’s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important free speech ruling in a case called Hurley v. Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston. In Hurley, the Court held that private associations communicating a message (through a parade, for instance) could not be forced to include unwanted groups in their parade, for this would compel the parade organizers to communicate a message against their will and make free speech and freedom of association protections meaningless. Such forced speech cannot be accomplished even in the name of eradicating discrimination, the Court held.

The Hurley case dealt with the Boston parade, but it settled almost the same issue for the NYC parade. Thus, the NYC parade organizers are not forced by law to do what they just decided to do – include the gay group and its banner. Nevertheless, they are doing exactly that. Thus, here we see an example of cultural pressure superseding legal requirements and causing a group to do what it isn’t required by law to do.

This same phenomenon occurred in the Boy Scouts of America v. Dale case and its aftermath. There, the Supreme Court held that the scouts were protected by the freedom to associate and did not have to permit homosexual scouts or scout masters. Despite being constitutionally protected, the Scouts reversed course in permitting gay scouts (while retaining the ban on gay scout masters). Alas, another high profile entity ceded to cultural pressure that which the law does not require.

Though these are only two situations, they are high profile matters which illustrate my point: it is highly important to address cultural trends over the long-term, and the thinking that underlies them, in addition to fighting legal battles and addressing matters through the legislature. These cases are monumental constitutional rulings, and many who still wish to speak freely can rely on them. But we can win great court battles and still lose the culture (as these cases illustrate) without properly addressing these trends at the roots. The “how” of addressing these trends is more difficult. One might start by studying how those advancing “anything goes” sexuality have been so successful over the past decades, and after properly understanding the context and our opponents’ messages, we can ascertain the best long-term language to communicate the importance of religious liberty and other issues. Only when we have acquired the proper ammunition for re-shaping our culture over the long-term, can we begin to use it.

Critics of Natural Marriage Remain in Search of Legal Rationale in 7th Circuit Arguments

by Peter Sprigg

August 28, 2014

I regard it as absurd, you say it’s self-evident.”

That caustic remark — one of many — from Judge Richard Posner, during the August 26 oral arguments regarding Indiana and Wisconsin marriage laws, perhaps encapsulated the gulf between those seeking to retain the natural definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman and those seeking to redefine it for the purpose of affirming homosexual relationships.

Posner, a 75-year-old Reagan appointee, directed his quip at Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, who was defending his state’s law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a set of cases under the heading Baskin v. Bogan. The court also heard arguments regarding Wisconsin’s marriage amendment in the case of Wolf v. Walker. District courts in both cases ruled the state marriage laws unconstitutional earlier this year. (Oral arguments in the cases can be heard online at the links above.)

Mr. Fisher was right. The case for defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman is (or at least should be) self-evident. It is self-evident that opposite-sex and same-sex sexual relationships are not the same — the former can result in natural procreation, and the latter never can. That fact, in turn, makes it self-evident that society has a greater interest in both encouraging and regulating opposite-sex relationships (which it does through the institution of marriage) than same-sex ones.

Nevertheless, the homosexual movement has succeeded in draping a curtain over these self-evident truths by misdirection involving not the rule, but exceptions — namely, opposite-sex couples who do not procreate and same-sex couples who do raise children. The specific point which Judge Posner considered “absurd” was the idea (posed by Posner himself) that a sterile, elderly opposite-sex couple could in any way be a “model” for a younger couple forming a family.

Posner dominated the arguments in both cases, offering by far the most questions and comments of any of the three judges — at least when defenders of natural marriage were attempting to make their case. While it is customary for judges in such settings to seize control of the discussion rather than simply allow the attorneys free rein, for most of the arguments, Posner was pushing a single point of his own, arguing rather than asking questions, and often not even allowing time for a single sentence in reply.

Posner’s single-minded obsession was the presumed plight of children who are being raised by same-sex couples. When the state argued that marriage addresses the uniquely heterosexual problem of accidental or unintended procreation, Posner asked, “Now, isn’t it true most unintended children are put up for adoption?” (Fisher answered, correctly, “I think many times single mothers care for them.”) Posner seemed to assume that most children raised by homosexuals are adopted from this pool of “unintended” children — painting a picture of homosexual couples heroically rescuing children abandoned by their heterosexual parents. (In reality, most children being raised by homosexuals or same-sex couples are the biological child of one partner, conceived in a previous heterosexual relationship and now forcibly separated from one biological parent by the other.) Posner’s own “self-evident” truth — apparently heavily influenced by a brief filed by the pro-homosexual Family Equality Council — was that such children would be helped by their same-sex “parents” having access to the legal benefits of marriage. His question was, who would be harmed by that (or, alternatively, who benefits from the current law which prevents such same-sex “parents” from marrying)?

There are good answers to this question — see, for example, my FRC booklet, The Top Ten Harms of Same-Sex “Marriage.” Unfortunately, attorneys for the states seemed unprepared — or reluctant — to offer examples of such potential harms, suggesting only that we cannot know with certainty what the consequences would be. That aside, however, the kind of cost-benefit analysis Judge Posner was proposing is a fundamentally legislative task — not a judicial one. Whether costs outweigh benefits may help determine if a particular policy is wise — but it is not sufficient to determine if a policy is constitutional, or should be struck down by the courts.

Another judge in the three-judge panel, 57-year-old David Hamilton (appointed to a District Court position by Clinton and to the Appeals Court by Obama), was also skeptical of the state’s arguments. Hamilton, however, was far more measured in tone than Posner — and more balanced, asking challenging questions of the plaintiffs’ attorneys as well. Having warned each attorney that while they want to emphasize their strong points, the judges want to probe their weak ones, Hamilton pressed those backing the redefinition of marriage about one of Fisher’s arguments for Indiana — namely, “The position put forth by the plaintiffs in this case admit[s] of no limiting principle.”

In other words, as many have pointed out, the arguments put forth in support of same-sex “marriage” — such as “equality” and the freedom to marry whom you choose — could be equally applied to other types of unions, including polygamous or incestuous ones. That challenge was also pressed by the third judge, 65-year-old Ann Claire Williams (appointed by Reagan to a District Court and by Clinton to the Appeals Court). Even Posner, by far the most skeptical of “traditional” marriage, piled on in the polygamy discussion, asking, “How many people do you have a fundamental right to marry at one time? Just one? … I don’t understand — where do you draw the line?”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs mostly avoided the question or struggled to find an answer, with Ken Falk of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana falling back on his own form of “self-evident” truth, referring to “my mathematical diagram of marriage” in declaring that “if you have two people in it, regardless of their sexes … it’s going to look like marriage. If you have three or four people, it’s not going to look like marriage.” (Of course, for most of history, if it didn’t have a man and a woman, it didn’t “look like marriage.”)

Another Achilles’ heel for the marriage redefinition movement, despite a string of federal court victories since last year’s Supreme Court decision requiring federal recognition of same-sex unions that are legally recognized by states, is that no consensus has emerged about the legal or constitutional reasoning for declaring a “right” to same-sex “marriage.” The Supreme Court has said that the “liberty” interests protected by the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment include a “fundamental right to marry,” which some courts have asserted also encompasses the right to marry a person of the same sex. However, the 7th Circuit judges seemed skeptical of that approach, with Hamilton saying, “Finding a federal right to marry that is undefined is a pretty problematic concept for substantive due process.” Even Posner was skeptical on this point, saying, “I think when you talk about fundamental rights … you get into a morass, right?”

Judge Hamilton asserted that “you’ve got a much stronger equal protection theory.” The problem for those seeking to overturn the marriage laws under “equal protection” is that most laws are presumed constitutional under the lenient “rational basis” test, which requires only that there be some conceivable “rational basis” for the classification in the law. Hamilton, therefore, raised the possibility that the differential treatment of same-sex couples might trigger “heightened scrutiny,” which places a heavier burden of proof upon the state to defend the law. “If we look strictly at the text,” Hamilton said, “what the statute does is classify based on sex… . So that would seem to point us in the direction of heightened scrutiny.”

Most courts, however, have viewed the “classification” as being based on sexual orientation rather than sex, and even attorney James Esseks of the ACLU, arguing in the Wisconsin case, admitted that 7th Circuit precedent does not apply heightened scrutiny for sexual orientation. (In reality, the “classification” in the marriage laws is based on “gender complementarity,” which is different from either of the other theories.) On the “heightened scrutiny” theory, Posner parted ways with Hamilton, declaring, “I don’t get any help from phrases like heightened scrutiny.” Posner, perhaps oblivious to what he was saying, even touched the third rail of debates over homosexuality by appearing to compare homosexuals to pedophiles and treat pedophilia as a “sexual orientation”:

If you were dealing with pedophiles, you wouldn’t say … any regulation of pedophiles was subject to heightened scrutiny because it’s an innate sexual orientation… . We don’t think of those terms when we’re dealing with all sorts of sexual compulsions, right? We just say, “This is obviously very harmful to other people.” So it’s illegal, even though these people can’t help it in many cases.

One thing that was disappointing in the oral arguments (in addition to Judge Posner’s vitriolic hostility to natural marriage) was the relatively weak defense offered by attorneys for the states. By focusing narrowly on the issue of accidental procreation (the one public concern that is absolutely unique to opposite-sex relationships), Indiana’s Fisher omitted broader state interests in encouraging procreation in general, and in encouraging the raising of children by both their mother and father. (Indeed, one of Judge Hamilton’s first statements to him was, “I would think that the state’s interest is equal regardless of whether the children are intended or unintended.”).

Assistant Attorney General Timothy Samuelson’s defense of Wisconsin’s law was even more vague, as he drew mockery from the judges for his reliance on “tradition” and “experience” as justifications for the one-man-one-woman definition. He was given little opportunity to develop a more technical argument he proposed regarding the difference between “negative” rights (such as protection from employment discrimination) and “positive” rights (such as access to the legal benefits of marriage). At one point, he said, “We defer to Mr. Fisher’s arguments [in the Indiana case] … [M]arriage provides a mechanism for tying unplanned children to their biological parents.” At another, he referred the judges to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s dissent in last year’s case striking down the federal definition of marriage (Alito had cited the increase in divorce rates following the adoption of no-fault divorce as an example of how changes in marriage laws can lead to unforeseen negative consequences).

In neither case did the state’s attorneys make assertions as to actual harms that might result from redefining marriage — forcing Judge Hamilton to raise the issue by mentioning friend-of-the-court briefs by pro-family professor Helen Alvare (who argues, “Redefining marriage in a way that de-links sex, marriage and children threatens to harm the most vulnerable Americans and exacerbate the ‘marriage gap’ responsible for increasing levels of social inequality in America”) and by authors Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson (who argue, “Redefining marriage would not extend its stabilizing norms, but undermine them across society.”) Fisher merely affirmed the state’s position is that they “can win without making that argument.”

Although all three judges seemed skeptical of the states codifying only natural marriage between a man and a woman, it remains unclear what argument will win in the 7th Circuit, given the lack of consensus on any constitutional rationale for striking those laws down, and the lack of a “limiting principle” to be placed upon such a redefinition of marriage.

Is There a Federal Constitutional “Right” to Same-Sex “Marriage?” The Supreme Court Answered that Question Already — in 1972

by Peter Sprigg

August 5, 2014

Have you ever heard of the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case called Baker v. Nelson?

If so, you are probably a lawyer, or (like me) a person who regularly reads briefs and court decisions on the issue of redefining “marriage” to include homosexual couples.

If you have never heard of this case, you can be forgiven — even if you regularly read news stories about the movement for the same-sex redefinition of marriage.

However, Baker v. Nelson is an important precedent on this issue. It was the very first case in which anyone ever asserted that the Constitution of the United States protects the right to legally “marry” a person of the same sex. In Baker, a male couple sued a county clerk in Minnesota for denying them a marriage license in May 1970. The case made its way to the Supreme Court of Minnesota — which, on October 15, 1971, issued a ruling declaring that the state’s marriage law did not permit a same-sex couple to “marry,” and that it “does not offend … the United States Constitution.”

The case was appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court — which at the time, was required to accept all such appeals (this is no longer true). The Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case on October 10, 1972, declaring (in full): “Appeal from Sup. Ct. Minn. dismissed for want of substantial federal question.”

The dismissal of the appeal “for want of [a] substantial federal question” meant that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision against same-sex “marriage” to stand.

Hundreds of times a year, the Supreme Court allows lower court decisions to stand as the final ruling in that particular case when it “denies a writ of certiorari” (or “denies cert” for short). Such denials do not imply that the Supreme Court necessarily agrees with the decision or its reasoning, and they do not set binding precedent for future cases.

However, a “dismissal for want of a substantial federal question” is not just a refusal to hear the case, the way that a denial of a writ of certiorari is. Such a summary dismissal is considered to be both a decision on the merits and a binding precedent. The Supreme Court explained this in a 1975 decision, Hicks v. Miranda. I have omitted citations and quotation marks in the following, but the Court affirmed this view of summary dismissals:

Votes to affirm summarily, and to dismiss for want of a substantial federal question, it hardly needs comment, are votes on the merits of a case … . [U]nless and until the Supreme Court should instruct otherwise, inferior federal courts had best adhere to the view that, if the Court has branded a question as unsubstantial, it remains so except when doctrinal developments indicate otherwise … . [T]he lower courts are bound by summary decisions by this Court until such time as the Court informs [them] that [they] are not.”

Unfortunately, the “inferior federal courts” have not been acknowledging the binding precedent of Baker — at least, not since the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2013 (United States v. Windsor) striking down the one-man-one-woman definition of marriage in the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Judges in the recent federal cases have asserted that “doctrinal developments” (both with regard to the treatment of sexual orientation and of marriage under the law and Supreme Court precedent) have made Baker no longer binding.

Although the Windsor case is widely cited as the decisive case tipping the balance in favor of a federal constitutional right to same-sex “marriage,” it actually addressed a much narrower issue. DOMA effectively denied federal recognition even to same-sex “marriages” that were legal in the eyes of a State, and it was this “unusual deviation from the usual tradition of recognizing and accepting state definitions of marriage” that was deemed offensive to the Constitution. On the other hand, state laws defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman are not an “unusual deviation from the usual tradition” — they are the usual tradition.

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion made clear that Windsor was about “persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State” (emphasis added). The penultimate sentence of the opinion states specifically, “This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.”

Implicit in this caveat is that the “opinion and its holding” do not apply to same-sex relationships that have not been deemed to be legal “marriages” by any State. As Hicks v. Miranda said, “[T]he lower courts are bound by summary decisions by this Court until such time as the Court informs [them] that [they] are not.” This would suggest that the summary decision in Baker remains binding (at least on the lower courts), since even in Windsor, the Supreme Court has never “informed [them] that [it] is not.”

Some people may argue that the absence of a written opinion explaining its reasoning limits the precedential value of Baker. However, while the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case in a scant twelve words, the same is not true of the Minnesota Supreme Court. They issued a written opinion over a thousand words long, succinctly but clearly explaining the weakness of the plaintiffs’ case.

Although the written opinion was from a state court, the plaintiffs’ primary claims (and the Minnesota Supreme Court’s opinion) dealt primarily with federal constitutional issues. The assertions made by the plaintiffs — relating to the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment — are virtually the same as those being made in the cases working their way through the federal courts today.

Therefore, it is worth reading the Minnesota Supreme Court decision in Baker v. Nelson. An honest judge with integrity could just as easily release it again today.

The version below is edited for clarity by removing legal citations (except the one for Baker itself) and by turning all footnotes into end notes, as well as by adding limited explanatory material. The full text of the decision can be found various places online, including here.

Richard John BAKER, et al., Appellants,

v.

Gerald NELSON, Clerk of Hennepin County District Court, Respondent

No. 43009

Supreme Court of Minnesota,

Oct. 15, 1971

191 N.W.2d 185; 291 Minn. 310

OPINION

[C. DONALD] PETERSON, Justice. [for a unanimous 7-judge court]

The questions for decision are whether a marriage of two persons of the same sex is authorized by state statutes and, if not, whether state authorization is constitutionally compelled.

Petitioners, Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell, both adult male persons, made application to respondent, Gerald R. Nelson, clerk of Hennepin County District Court, for a marriage license, pursuant to [Minnesota’s marriage law]. Respondent declined to issue the license on the sole ground that petitioners were of the same sex, it being undisputed that there were otherwise no statutory impediments to a heterosexual marriage by either petitioner.

The trial court, quashing an alternative writ of mandamus, ruled that respondent was not required to issue a marriage license to petitioners and specifically directed that a marriage license not be issued to them. This appeal is from those orders. We affirm.

1. Petitioners contend, first, that the absence of an express statutory prohibition against same-sex marriages evinces a legislative intent to authorize such marriages. We think, however, that a sensible reading of the statute discloses a contrary intent.

[The Minnesota statute] which governs “marriage,” employs that term as one of common usage, meaning the state of union between persons of the opposite sex.[1] It is unrealistic to think that the original draftsmen of our marriage statutes, which date from territorial days, would have used the term in any different sense. The term is of contemporary significance as well, for the present statute is replete with words of heterosexual import such as “husband and wife” and “bride and groom” (the latter words inserted by [another statute]).

We hold, therefore, that [the Minnesota marriage law] does not authorize marriage between persons of the same sex and that such marriages are accordingly prohibited.

2. Petitioners contend, second, that [the Minnesota marriage law], so interpreted, is unconstitutional. There is a dual aspect to this contention: The prohibition of a same-sex marriage denies petitioners a fundamental right guaranteed by the Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution, arguably made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, and petitioners are deprived of liberty and property without due process and are denied the equal protection of the laws, both guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.[2]

These constitutional challenges have in common the assertion that the right to marry without regard to the sex of the parties is a fundamental right of all persons and that restricting marriage to only couples of the opposite sex is irrational and invidiously discriminatory. We are not independently persuaded by these contentions and do not find support for them in any decisions of the United States Supreme Court

The institution of marriage as a union man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the book of Genesis. Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1942), which invalidated Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act on equal protection grounds, stated in part: “Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race.” This historic institution manifestly is more deeply founded than the asserted contemporary concept of marriage and societal interests for which petitioners contend. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is not a charter for restructuring it by judicial legislation.

Griswold v. Connecticut, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1965), upon which petitioners rely, does not support a contrary conclusion. A Connecticut criminal statute prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married couples was held invalid, as violating the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The basic premise of that decision, however, was that the state, having authorized marriage, was without power to intrude upon the right of privacy inherent in the marital relationship. Mr. Justice Douglas, author of the majority opinion, wrote that this criminal statute “operates directly on an intimate relation of husband and wife,” and that the very idea of its enforcement by police search of “the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives … is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.” In a separate opinion for three justices, Mr. Justice Goldberg similarly abhorred this state disruption of “the traditional relation of the family—a relation as old and as fundamental as our entire civilization.”[3]

The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, like the due process clause, is not offended by the state’s classification of persons authorized to marry. There is no irrational or invidious discrimination. Petitioners note that the state does not impose upon heterosexual married couples a condition that they have a proved capacity or declared willingness to procreate, posing a rhetorical demand that this court must read such condition into the statute if same-sex marriages are to be prohibited. Even assuming that such a condition would be neither unrealistic nor offensive under the Griswold rationale, the classification is no more than theoretically imperfect. We are reminded, however, that “abstract symmetry” is not demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment.[4]

Loving v. Virginia, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1967), upon which petitioners additionally rely, does not militate against this conclusion. Virginia’s antimiscegenation statute, prohibiting interracial marriages, was invalidated solely on the grounds of its patent racial discrimination. As Mr. Chief Justice Warren wrote for the court:

Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. Skinner v. Oklahoma, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1942). See also Maynard v. Hill, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1888). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations.”[5]

Loving does indicate that not all state restrictions upon the right to marry are beyond reach of the Fourteenth Amendment. But in commonsense and in a constitutional sense, there is a clear distinction between a marital restriction based merely upon race and one based upon the fundamental difference in sex.

We hold, therefore, that [the Minnesota marriage law] does not offend the First, Eighth, Ninth, or Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Affirmed.



[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1966) p. 1384 gives this primary meaning to marriage: “1 a: the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife.”

Black, Law Dictionary (4 ed.) p. 1123 states this definition: “Marriage *** is the civil status, condition, or relation of one man and one woman united in law for life, for the discharge to each other and the community of the duties legally incumbent on those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex.”

[2] We dismiss without discussion petitioners’ additional contentions that the statute contravenes the First Amendment and Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

[3] The difference between the majority opinion of Mr. Justice Douglas and the concurring opinion of Mr. Justice Goldberg was that the latter wrote extensively concerning this right of marital privacy as one preserved to the individual by the Ninth Amendment. He stopped short, however, of an implication that the Ninth Amendment was made applicable against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

[4] See, Patsone V. Pennsylvania, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1914). As stated in Tigner v.Texas, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1940), and reiterated in Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, [U.S. Supreme Court], “[t]he Constitution does not require things which are different in fact or opinion to be treated in law as though they were the same.”

[5] See, also, McLaughlin V. Florida, [U.S. Supreme Court] (1964), in which the United States Supreme Court, for precisely the same reason of classification based only upon race, struck down a Florida criminal statute which proscribed and punished habitual cohabitation only if one of an unmarried couple was white and the other black.

When Unborn Children are Considered Victims of Homicide

by Arina Grossu

July 22, 2014

There are a number of disturbing facts about a homicide story coming out of Michigan, not the least the gory acts of violence surrounding the deaths of a man and a pregnant woman. The story leaves a lot of disturbing questions unanswered about the nature of the encounter that resulted in this tragedy.

It is interesting to note that the reporting ABC affiliate recently called it a “triple homicide.” “Why triple?” you may ask. Michigan law (Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 750.322) defines the willful killing of an unborn child by any injury to the mother of the child as manslaughter. It is one of 38 statesto have fetal homicide laws. The rights of this unborn child as a person are accepted and defended.

In a previous article, I outlined the logical inconsistency of abortion laws in light of fetal homicide laws. What’s the difference between this unborn child whose life was taken from him and the 3,000 children who die every day because they are aborted? The only difference is not their level of development or any other factor, but rather the consent of the mother.

This dark and senseless act which claimed the lives of three people and the suicide of the perpetrator not only underlines the present culture of death, but the logical inconsistency in not defining the killing of unborn children as homicide in all states and under all circumstances.

Democratic Bill to Override Hobby Lobby Ruling Fails

by Arina Grossu

July 16, 2014

A bill introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), the “Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act” to override the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby ruling failed to get cloture in the Senate today. The Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell that family business owners do not have to violate their consciences in order to earn a living by providing drugs and services to their employees in their healthcare plan, to which they morally object.

This bill seeks to overturn what the Supreme Court ruled earlier this month, and would force family business owners to provide their employees in their healthcare plan drugs and devices that have the potential to kill an unborn child even if they may have moral objections, and despite the protections afforded to them by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). It failed to get the sixty votes that were needed to move the bill forward, coming up short at 56-43 votes. We are thankful to the Senators who voted against cloture on this bill, thus protecting the religious freedom of all family businesses.

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