On November 6, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in an opinion written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton, held that the marriage laws of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee do not violate the federal Constitution.

The opinion is a model of judicial restraint. Judge Sutton declared that states may see fit to legalize same-sex marriage, as multiple states already have, but that decision is to be left to the people of the states; the Constitution does not permit a “poll” of federal judges about “whether gay marriage is a good idea.”

A number of arguments were raised by the challengers of the marriage laws. Judge Sutton confronted all of them, and methodically explained why they are each insufficient to entitle the challengers to relief.

The 6th Circuit is simply following precedent, which it is required to do

The Court first explained that its position as an intermediate court requires it to follow on-point precedent, which is readily available in the case of Baker v. Nelson. Even in light of Loving v. Virginia (which had been decided four years previous to Baker), the Minnesota Supreme Court in Baker held that there was no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage, for “‘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.’” The losing party appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Court dismissed the constitutional same-sex marriage claim, thus establishing Supreme Court precedent binding the 6th Circuit in this case.

Neither does United States v. Windsor change the calculus, for Windsor and Baker dealt with different issues. As for the argument that Windsor and other cases constitute a “doctrinal development,” Judge Sutton relies on the explicit instruction of the Supreme Court in other cases to conclude, quite reasonably, that Supreme Court precedents (which include Baker) must be followed until the Supreme Court makes clear otherwise. Unless the Supreme Court expressly overrules Baker by name, or by outcome, the 6th Circuit is bound by it. In addition, Judge Sutton clearly repudiated the notion that Windsor controls the present question somehow – noting that Windsor did not decide whether there was a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

This type of solid logic is great to see; and shows that judges who have ruled otherwise have recklessly picked their favorite cases and twisted them to fit a favorable narrative. These other rulings finding a federal right to same-sex “marriage” have torn logic from its moorings; this is all the more apparent when contrasted with Judge Sutton’s solid logic here.

Baker independently provides grounds to conclude there is no constitutional rights claim to same-sex marriage, but Judge Sutton continues to address the remainder of challengers’ arguments nevertheless.

The original meaning of the Constitution does not offer support for same-sex marriage

Considering that the Constitution is an agreement between the people of the United States and the political leaders entrusted to govern them, Judge Sutton noted, its terms can only be changed with the consent of the people. For this reason also, clarity in interpretation and understanding are all the more important. There is no clear provision or understanding of the Constitution’s terms conferring a right to same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court also clearly looks to long-established historical track records of how constitutional provisions are to be interpreted – as revealed by precedent on a number of different constitutional provisions. Therefore, with this understanding, states are permitted, but not required, to legally allow marriage between members of the same-sex. If lawyers still invoke the original meaning of the Magna Carta, is it too much to ask that the original meaning of the Constitution (which, as Judge Sutton noted, no party to the case has suggested permits same-sex marriage) be respected? Indeed, it is not. Judge Sutton concluded that the original meaning of the Constitution and the historical record of what it permits does not reveal any constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

The state marriage laws meet rational basis review

Judge Sutton next concluded that the state marriage laws at issue meet rational basis review, which is satisfied as long as there is “any plausible reason” for the laws. Indeed, “[a] dose of humility makes” the Court “hesitant to condemn as unconstitutionally irrational a view of marriage shared not long ago by every society in the world, shared by most, if not all, of our ancestors, and shared still today by a significant number of the States.”

The Court noted it is clearly rational for the state to want to regulate the effects of sexual activity – which raises very important questions such as who is responsible for children produced by sexual activity, how many mates a person may have, and who is responsible for children which one or more of the partners helped to produce. The fact “[t]hat we rarely think about these questions nowadays shows only how far we have come and how relatively stable our society is, not that States have no explanation for creating such rules in the first place.” This alone is evidence of the rational basis of such laws. Moreover, “rational basis review does not permit courts to invalidate laws every time a new and allegedly better way of addressing a policy emerges,” Judge Sutton concluded. “By creating a status (marriage) and by subsidizing it (e.g., with tax-filing privileges and deductions), the States created an incentive for two people who procreate together to stay together for purposes of rearing offspring. That does not convict the States of irrationality.”

It is also clearly rational for the states to want to wait and see what happens as a result of the legalization of same-sex marriage before changing their own laws on a norm which has existed for centuries. Developments in the United States on this issue have been rapid-fire, and yet at the same time, many states have simply left in place the norms to which they have always held. This is certainly rational, for “[a] Burkean sense of caution does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Either of these two grounds would independently satisfy rational basis review. Yet even the challengers’ own “love-and-commitment” definition of marriage would fail under their view of rational basis review. For no state requires couples, whether gay or straight, to be in love. Yet on the other hand, their definition fails to account for plural marriages, for there is “no reason to think that three or four adults, whether gay, bisexual, or straight, lack the capacity to share love, affection, and commitment, or for that matter lack the capacity to be capable (and more plentiful) parents to boot.” The Court proclaimed, “[i]f it is constitutionally irrational to stand by the man-woman definition of marriage, it must be constitutionally irrational to stand by the monogamous definition of marriage.” Judge Sutton noted that the challengers “have no answer” on this point. Yet “[w]hat they might say they cannot: They might say that tradition or community mores provide a rational basis for States to stand by the monogamy definition of marriage, but they cannot say that because that is exactly what they claim is illegitimate about the States’ male-female definition of marriage.

Judicial deference to the people is a serious issue under rational basis review. Indeed, as Judge Sutton noted, the Supreme Court has held that a “State’s interest in maintaining close ties among those who steer ships in its ports justifies denying pilotage licenses to anyone who isn’t a friend or relative of an incumbent pilot. Can we honestly say that traditional marriage laws involve more irrationality than nepotism?”

Ultimately, rational basis review is clearly satisfied here because either the regulation of sexual activity or a decision to proceed with caution on marriage laws would satisfy the constitutional standard. Thus the Court could dispose of the case at this point. But Judge Sutton continues to address the many arguments raised by the challengers – who no doubt are hoping that one of them would stick.

The voters in the states cannot be painted with the broad brush of “animus”

Judge Sutton next dismissed the idea that the state marriage laws are driven by animus, noting that the laws (which there are plenty of legitimate reasons to support) merely hold in place norms which have been around for the entire history of civilization. As the Court noted, “if there was one concern animating the initiatives, it was the fear that the courts would seize control over an issue that people of good faith care deeply about. If that is animus, the term has no useful meaning.” How could the voters be blamed for feeling this way, when judges around the country were starting to strike down these laws out of the blue? It was at this time that voters decided to codify these long-held traditions in law – an act which the Supreme Court itself affirmed to be their prerogative to decide sensitive public policy issue in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. Painting the voters of the states with the broad brush of animus is “no less unfair” than portraying all supporters of same-sex marriage as intent on destroying American families to the core. Thus the idea that animus has driven state marriage laws, and that this serves as a reason to find them unconstitutional, fails entirely.

There is no fundamental right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution

The Court next tackled the question of whether there was a fundamental right to same-sex marriage, beginning by noting that it does not appear explicitly in the Constitution, and next by finding it is not historically “deeply rooted” as necessary to “ordered liberty.” Loving does not support the idea that this right historically existed. Loving did not use the term “opposite-sex” marriage, but that would have been redundant. For in Loving the Court proclaimed that marriage was “fundamental to our very existence and survival” – referring to the procreative aspect of marriage. Judge Sutton reasoned:

“Had a gay African-American male and a gay Caucasian male been denied a marriage license in Virginia in 1968, would the Supreme Court have held that Virginia had violated the Fourteenth Amendment? No one to our knowledge thinks so, and no Justice to our knowledge has ever said so. The denial of the license would have turned not on the races of the applicants but on a request to change the definition of marriage. Had Loving meant something more when it pronounced marriage a fundamental right, how could the Court hold in Baker five years later that gay marriage does not even raise a substantial federal question? Loving addressed, and rightly corrected, an unconstitutional eligibility requirement for marriage; it did not create a new definition of marriage.”

Neither do Zablocki v. Redhail or Turner v. Safley supporter the challengers’ claim here, for “[i]t strains credulity to believe that a year after each decision a gay indigent father could have required the State to grant him a marriage license for his partnership or that a gay prisoner could have required the State to permit him to marry a gay partner. When Loving and its progeny used the word marriage, they did not redefine the term but accepted its traditional meaning.”

Judge Sutton also noted that the Supreme Court has chosen not to subject laws regulating other aspects of marriage – such as divorce laws, polygamy laws, and laws regulating the age and familial status of those entering marriage – to strict scrutiny. As is the case with same-sex relationships, there are other areas of action intersecting with marriage laws which do not implicate fundamental rights subject to strict scrutiny.

In conclusion, there is no fundamental right to same-sex marriage – it is not mentioned in the Constitution, and cannot be recognized under the applicable legal standard.

Sexual orientation is not a “discrete and insular class without political power”

As the Court noted, rational basis review applies to sexual orientation classifications. The Supreme Court has never held that heightened review applies, and has not recognized a new suspect class in over four decades. Windsor does not support any contrary conclusion; rather, Windsor overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that marriage law and policy is to be left in the hands of the states. If it wasn’t clear enough, Judge Sutton emphasized the point again: Windsor does not support a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage – any other reading “would require us to subtract key passages from the opinion and add an inverted holding.” Thus there is no heightened review applied in this case.

The notion of “evolving meaning” cannot support the legalization of same-sex marriage

Even if changing mores are examined for whether they can support new judicial decision-making, they do not support the idea that laws upholding natural marriage must be struck down. Such considerations are dependent on society’s values (not judges’ values), and thirty-one states would continue to permit only natural marriage if given the choice. If the “pacing” of the change of this issue in society is to be considered, and the challengers desire is to examine judicial decisions as part of this trend, what about the “pacing” of state legislatures’ decisions and the deference due to their interest in caution?

Moreover, even if international legal regimes are examined on this point, Judge Sutton observed that the great majority of countries have retained natural marriage. The European Court of Human Rights even held that European human rights laws do not guarantee a right of same-sex marriage. The Court makes a good point: “What neutral principle of constitutional interpretation allows us to ignore the European Court’s same-sex marriage decisions when deciding this case? If the point is relevant in the one setting, it is relevant in the other, especially in a case designed to treat like matters alike.”

In concluding this section of his opinion, Judge Sutton noted “[i]t is dangerous and demeaning to the citizenry to assume that we, and only we, can fairly understand the arguments for and against gay marriage.” Indeed, even if evolving mores are considered, they do not support a wholesale forced acceptance of same-sex marriage.

For all these reasons, the marriage laws at issue in this case are perfectly constitutional.

The challengers had also argued, however, that state laws banning recognition of out-of-state marriages violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

The Constitution does not require inter-state recognition of same-sex marriages

The Court stated that (as explained above) because states may constitutionally define marriage between men and women as they see fit within their borders, they may also constitutionally define how they will recognize out of state marriages. States have always decided how and when they will recognize other states’ laws based on choice of law doctrines. This situation is no different. Indeed, states already for a long time have refused to recognize invalid out of state marriages in other contexts – like incestuous or polygamous marriages, or others opposed to state law. States may decide what marriages to recognize as a matter of policy in those contexts, and this one is no different. If there is no constitutional right forcing a state to modify its own marriage laws, there is no constitutional right forcing a state to modify its laws regarding recognition of marriages performed in other states.

The challengers also argued that such bans violate the constitutional right to travel – which protects the right to leave and enter states, be welcomed, and, if a permanent resident, be treated like a citizen of the state. Yet, as the Court noted, state laws banning recognition of out of state marriage violate none of these rules. People can still move freely across boundaries, and are treated just like those inside the state who would violate the marriage laws. Thus, the right to travel does not require invalidation of state marriage laws on this point.

Conclusion

For all these reasons (explained above and summarized below), the Court held that state laws upholding natural marriage are fully legal and constitutional:

  • Baker requires that this Court dismiss the constitutional rights claims here.
  • Even if not dismissed, these laws meet rational basis review. There is no animus or suspect classification which would require any greater review.
  • There is also no fundamental right here – explicitly protected or deserving to be recognized.
  • There is no original meaning or “evolving meaning” support for a same-sex marriage right which would change any of the above analyses.
  • Additionally, no legal principle changes the constitutional calculus regarding laws pertaining to recognition of out-of-state marriages.

Judge Sutton reiterated one final time that such sensitive issues, especially when considering the abrupt timeline of change and legalization of same-sex marriage, should be left to the voters to decide. Only then can voters on both sides of the issue makes their voices heard in a manner befitting them as ultimate arbiters in a self-governing democracy, as opposed to making judges the “heroes” (or villains) they were never meant to be.

Dissent

Dissenting Judge Daughtrey repeats all the same arguments advanced by the challengers – arguments which have been repeated elsewhere by rogue judges striking down marriage laws. She accuses the majority of setting up a “false premise” of “who should decide” this issue – the voters or judges. Perhaps she is grasping at straws, for this is not a false premise at all, but a legitimate question that is actually before the court – whether there actually is a right to same-sex marriage at all – which, if absent, indeed permits the voters to decide. For much of her opinion, she spends time on items not even central to the legal issues – she discusses the various factual scenarios of the challengers’ lives, then takes shots at the expert testimony offered by the defending states (without equally scrutinizing plaintiffs’ experts), and finally simply recounts other recent circuit court rulings (which themselves have been crafted out of thin air in the past year with specious reasoning).

She fails to confront the precedential hurdles she faces in Baker (which have been discussed by the majority). She also fails to even examine the proper standard for rational basis review – whether there is “any plausible reason” for traditional marriage. Instead, she just skips the question, choosing instead to complain about the majority’s arguments without engaging them, and without applying the appropriate legal standard. For instance, at one point, she focuses on the level of difficulty of amending a state constitution – a question entirely irrelevant to the legal standard she is supposed to be considering.

She then claims the voters could be exhibiting “animus” if they have a “general, ephemeral distrust of, of discomfort with, a particular group.” Under that standard, we might as well be forced to legitimize virtually every behavior for which we currently incarcerate people.

It goes without saying further that the dissent is poorly constructed and lacks objectivity. That alone would be sufficient reason to criticize it; the cheap shots which she takes at the judges in the majority (and to some extent the voters) further discredit the dissent.