Reinhardt’s Minimalism, Lowering the Stakes

In contrast to Judge Walker’s maximalist opinion striking down Prop 8, it’s generally accepted that Judge Reinhardt’s opinion was minimalist.

There’s a commonsense way in which the opinion is not at all minimalist. It reverses the results of a plebiscite, which followed the expenditure of $80 million and the mobilization of millions of voters. It brings full same-sex marriage to a state whose cultural, political, and legal influence on the rest of the country outstrips even its massive population. It’s by far the biggest prize (sorry, New York) in the fight over gay marriage. Advocates on both sides know this. Winning California is not the beginning of the end, but it is at least the end of the beginning.

In legal terms, as well, minimalism may not precisely describe the opinion.  Reinhardt decided that Prop 8 was unconstitutional on Equal Protection grounds only in the specific and unusual circumstances of California, which are not likely to be repeated: full rights and non-marital status given to same-sex couples, followed by court-granted marital status, followed by actual marriages, followed by popular denial of marital status but leaving in place full rights. Whether the opinion can really be cabined to apply only to these unique circumstances is doubtful.  Can you really say, as a colleague of mine commented today, that the state must move you from the middle of the bus to the front, but not from the back of the bus to the front? But suppose the decision really is a constitutional ticket good-for-this-ride-only (like the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore). Minimalism is not the narrowest possible ground on which a court can rule.  It’s the narrowest plausible grounds on which a court can rule, with at least some theoretical underpinning that helps us understand it as a principled decision, even if a badly principled decision, rather than as simply an order.  The panel’s decision is not so much under-theorized in the way minimalists love; it hardly has any theory.  It is so minimalist one might call it minisculist.

Here’s a way we might understand what the panel is doing with such a narrow and shallow opinion. For all the complaints about its activism, the Supreme Court usually moves incrementally. For all the complaints about its countermajoritarianism, it rarely resists a strong national consensus for very long. One very crude way to measure the degree of the Court’s activism and countermajoritarianism is to ask, in a given case, how many states have had their public policy thwarted by a Supreme Court decision holding a policy unconstitutional?  On the aggressive end of the spectrum we have Roe v. Wade, now regarded by many commentators on both sides of the issue as having been too aggressive and as unlikely to be repeated barring a radical change in the Court’s composition.  Roe effectively invalidated the abortion laws of all 50 states, none of which were sufficiently liberal for the Court. On the other end of the spectrum we have Griswold v. Connecticut, which invalidated only the novel Connecticut ban on the use of contraceptives — even by married couples.  In between Roe and Griswold on the spectrum, we have sodomy laws, decided against the constitutional claim when 24 states had such laws (Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986) but in favor of the claim when only 13 states had such laws (of which only four applied solely to homosexual sex and none of which were actively enforced) (Lawrence v. Texas in 2003); and we have anti-miscegenation laws, struck down when 16 states still had them (Loving v. Virginia in 1967).

Where does the Prop 8 litigation stand on this spectrum between invalidating 50 state laws and invalidating only one? Using Walker’s logic (including a fundamental right to marry) the Court would effectively invalidate the laws of, at present, 44 states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, thirty of which ban it in their state constitutions.  That puts it close to Roe territory, a land the Court has pretty much stopped inhabiting (see, e.g., Washington v. Glucksberg).

But using Reinhardt’s logic (again, taking it only on its explicit terms, not in terms of the way it might ultimately be used) a Court would strike down only the law in California.  That brings it, on the spectrum of judicial aggressiveness, closer to Griswold than to Roe.  This is one way to understand Reinhardt’s almost complete reliance on Romer v. Evans, which struck down the law of only one state.  In fact, moving the litigation toward the Griswold end of the spectrum makes it somewhat less likely that the Court will even hear the case, though I share the expectation of my co-Conspirators that the Court is likely to review the issue.  I don’t want to suggest that in its constitutional decisionmaking the Court simply tallies the number of states it has to take on and then decides to act based on the breadth and depth of the likely backlash. That would be reductive and unfair, when in fact I believe the Justices are thoughtful and try to be principled. But it’s hard to believe that considerations of backlash and a welcome humility in the face of a deep national consensus play no role in the Court’s decisionmaking.

Reinhardt’s way of deciding the case does mean that a win for same-sex marriage advocates (through a denial of cert or a Reinhardt-style Supreme Court opinion) is less complete, at least in the immediate future.  More litigation, and more appeals, testing the logic would follow for years, even if the end result is pretty clear.  But it also means that a loss in the Supreme Court could be much more narrow, potentially rejecting only what Jason Mazzone has quite persuasively argued is a strained reading of Romer. Other, more completely theorized, arguments for same-sex marriage based on sex discrimination (which Ilya prefers) or sexual orientation discrimination (which others find more persuasive) or the denial of a fundamental right (as Walker believed) would still be open.  In this way, Reinhardt’s opinion lowers the stakes for same-sex marriage advocates even as it hands them potentially the most important victory yet.