What Happens to Straight People

Before I get to the last phase of my stint here, I thought it would be helpful for me to address one recurring theme in the comments. John D’s comment this morning is representative: “how are opposite-sex married couples treated in conflict-of-laws situations? We’ll take that, then.”

The important thing to recognize is that there is no established answer for how opposite-sex married couples are treated! All of these posts about different approaches aren’t hypothetical, they’re all real doctrines already applied to the conflicts problem outside of the same-sex context.

I think this is non-intuitive for many people — lawyers and non-lawyers — because they have a sense that legal uncertainty is pretty commonplace, and people usually manage to just muddle through. Even if doctrine is uncertain on the margins or theoretically incoherent, most of the time it just doesn’t matter much. But choice-of-law doctrine is unusually uncertain, and unusually incoherent, even compared to other legal doctrines!

Also, there are two practical reasons that these uncertainties haven’t made much of a difference, most of the time, to straight couples.

First, the uncertainties really bubble to the surface only when some states so strongly oppose a type of marriage that they exercise their traditional prerogative to refuse to recognize that marriage when it is consummated out of state. That hasn’t happened very often.

Second, the times when it has happened have simply not featured the same numbers as same-sex marriages do. In the last census, more than 130,000 same-sex couples described themselves as married! (Interracial marriage might have featured sizable numbers, I’m not sure, and if so, I’m not sure why the problem didn’t come up as much as you would expect in that context. I wonder if it had to do with the smaller size and scope of federal regulation.)

Anyway, I agree that, without DOMA, the conflicts rules for opposite-sex marriage will be applicable to same-sex marriages. But the point is that there is no single conflicts rule for opposite-sex marriages, and the same-sex marriage controversy will probably force us to resolve the old conflicts problem at long last.