Judicial Minimalism and Same-Sex Marriage

Co-blogger Dale Carpenter argues that Judge Stephen Reinhardt’s recent decision striking down the California gay marriage ban is an attempt at “judicial minimalism” intended to make the outcome acceptable to a Supreme Court that is unlikely to rule that the Constitution requires nation-wide recognition of same-sex marriage. By “lowering the stakes,” Dale argues, Reinhardt gives the Court a way to affirm his ruling.

This may well be Reinhardt’s intention. But I am skeptical that it will work. Whatever one thinks of judicial minimalism generally, there is no minimalist way to strike down Proposition 8. Even if the impact of such a decision were limited to California, that in itself is a huge step. California is a state with some 37 million people. Moreover, the logic of Reinhardt’s decision is that there is no “rational basis” for denying same-sex marriage in a state that already permits same-sex civil unions that give couples the same substantive rights as marriage would. In addition to California, there are seven other states that permit civil unions without legalizing same-sex marriage, including major states such as Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey. Many other states are likely to enact civil unions over the next few years, because the idea is very popular, with even a plurality of Republicans supporting it, as of 2010. If the Supreme Court embraces Reinhardt’s reasoning, a state that enacts a civil union law would have to embrace gay marriage as well. That’s not a minimalist result confined to one or a few states, and the Supreme Court justices are likely to realize that.

On the other hand, Dale is probably right to argue that the Supreme Court is not going to rule that the Constitution requires recognition of same-sex marriage at a time when 44 states still forbid it. This suggests that the anti-Prop 8 suit was premature. It would have stood a better chance a decade or two from now, since public and elite opinion are both moving strongly in favor of gay marriage. In the meantime, however, the current lawsuit is likely to fail.

Given this reality, gay marriage advocates might be best served by making the strongest possible constitutional argument for gay marriage rather than trying to engage in “minimalist” hair-splitting that makes them look as if they are trying to evade the real issue, and is unlikely to persuade anyone who isn’t already committed to the cause. The Court might well still uphold Proposition 8. But such a defeat could lay the groundwork for a later reversal, much as Bowers v. Hardwick helped set the stage for Lawrence v. Texas.

In my view, the strongest available argument is that a ban on same-sex marriage qualifies as sex discrimination. Obviously, others will disagree, preferring to base their case on privacy arguments or on claims that discrimination against gays is unconstitutional. Regardless, this is the kind of argument that gay marriage supporters will have to make.

UPDATE: I am, of course, well aware that the anti-Prop 8 plaintiffs have made a variety of broader arguments during the course of the litigation. I do not mean to suggest that they are relying solely on “minimalist” claims. I just wanted to explain why a minimalist victory in this case is unlikely.