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,
Gerald NELSON, Clerk of Hennepin County District Court, Respondent
Supreme Court of Minnesota,
Oct. 15, 1971
191 N.W.2d 185; 291 Minn. 310
[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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
 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.”
 We dismiss without discussion petitioners’ additional contentions that the statute contravenes the First Amendment and Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
 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.
 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.”
 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.