A Maximalist Decision, Raising the Stakes

I’m still studying the decision today in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which strikes down Prop 8 on both due process and equal protection grounds. I like a lot of the language, and the arguments, as a matter of rhetoric, common sense, and policy. There are some interesting twists on familiar arguments and, overall, the opinion is a pretty good compendium of a policy brief for SSM.

But my concerns about this decision outweigh what I see as its merits. In reading so far, I think a notable feature of Judge Walker’s decision is its judicial maximalism — a willingness to reach out and decide fundamental constitutional questions not strictly necessary to reach the result. It is also, in maximalist style, filled with broad pronouncements about the essential characteristics of marriage and confident conclusions about social science. This maximalism will make the decision an even bigger target for either the Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court. If that’s right, it magnifies the potential for unintended and harmful consequences for gay-rights claims even beyond the issue of marriage. Think of a possible (but milder) anti-SSM version of Bowers v. Hardwick, which had consequences far beyond the constitutional affirmation of sodomy laws.

Walker is the first federal judge to hold that states must recognize same-sex marriages. By doing so, he eschewed a potentially narrower ruling striking down only Proposition 8, which had been suggested by some commentators. Such an alternative ruling would have focused on what critics regarded as the “animus” behind the passage of Prop 8. In theory, it would have left states free to retain traditional definitions of marriage not reinforced by passion-driven plebiscites. I think a narrow, strictly anti-Prop 8, decision would have tried to thread too thin a needle, but it was an option. Walker mentions anti-gay sentiment in the Prop 8 campaign, especially highlighting the shameful and misleading ads supporting it, but that is not the basis for his decision.

Instead, finding a federal right to same-sex marriage itself, Walker leans on not one but two prominent constitutional arguments. First, he says that the fundamental right to marriage protected by the Due Process Clause includes the right to choose the sex of one’s mate. That’s because, he writes, sex-based classifications in marriage have long since been stripped away.  The ban on same-sex marriage is the vestige of discredited and long-abandoned sex discrimination in marriage.

Few courts upholding a right to SSM have used a fundamental-rights rationale (not even the original SSM decision, Goodridge, did so). It’s an aggressive claim, especially given the composition of the federal courts and the Supreme Court. I see little enthusiasm in this Court for expanding fundamental rights. If the Ninth Circuit and/or Supreme Court decide to reverse Walker’s ruling, they will be more likely to deal with this issue in a way that will set broader precedent. A minimalist decision for SSM by Walker could have left this matter undecided and thus would not have forced a higher court’s hand.

Second, Walker held that the ban on gay marriage violates the Equal Protection Clause.  The interesting question is why. In part of Walker’s opinion, he accepts the case for heightened scrutiny of classifications based on sexual orientation and asserts that denying marriage to same-sex couples is a form of sexual-orientation discrimination (and sex discrimination, which is related).

But he then concludes that because laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples are not rational, “the court need not address the question whether laws classifying on the basis of sexual orientation should be subject to a heightened standard of review.” If that’s true, why address the issue at all? He may be hoping, in maximalist fashion, to lay some foundation for future courts to apply strict scrutiny to sexual-orientation discrimination. But at the same time, leaving the intellectual structure unfinished, he invites a higher court to undermine it.

Walker then rejects as irrational each of the reasons offered for Prop 8, including tradition, procreation, and the need to proceed cautiously and incrementally on matters involving important social change. The biggest difficulty with his argument on these matters, as I see it, is that he thinks of gay marriage as a technical change in the law about which there is no need to proceed cautiously. California has enough printers and paper to issue the additional marriage licenses, so what’s the big deal?

The decision, as I read it, relies directly or indirectly upon every prominent constitutional argument for SSM. One could say this is a strength of the decision. If a higher court doesn’t like one reason, it might accept another. But it is also a weakness of the decision, from a gay-rights litigation perspective, since it invites a higher court to address them all if it decides to reverse the result. A sweeping victory becomes a sweeping defeat.

Judge Walker, I am sure, would deny that his decision is maximalist. SSM, he assures us, is not a “sweeping” change. Furthermore, his decision is couched in the lop-sided evidence presented at trial about marriage and the potential consequences of recognizing SSM.  By my count, he uses the word “evidence” 54 times in the “Conclusions of Law” section alone. This evidentiary reliance will be used to try to insulate the decision from meaningful appellate review.  The evidence just leads us, inescapably, to the conclusion that SSM is a neutral or even good thing. What’s more, the evidence is so one-sided that judges are entitled to say so as a matter of constitutional law. But I have never been convinced that the issue of gay marriage would be decided, in courts at least, by a battle of expert witnesses in the way we might decide whether a Pinto is unreasonably dangerous.

Gay-rights groups, you may recall, initially opposed the Prop 8 litigation on the grounds that it was too much, too soon. Though they are publicly  celebrating this ruling, I imagine in the background there is considerable unease about what happens next. The Supreme Court, they reasoned in early 2009, was not ready to declare a right to SSM. Premature litigation, they feared, would do more harm than good (even if there were a temporary win at a lower level). Well, nothing has changed except that the stakes have been considerably raised today in a maximalist decision, bringing us one step closer to Perry v. Schwarzenegger, ___ U.S. ___ (201_) (reversing lower court ruling for same-sex marriage on due process and equal protection grounds).