McConnell on the Same-Sex Marriage Cases

In Friday’s WSJ, Stanford law professor Michael McConnell, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, argues that the Supreme Court should hold that Proposition 8 supporters lack standing to defend the ballot initiative in federal court and that the federal government lacks the power to define marriage.

the court need not base its decision in Windsor on the merits of the same-sex marriage question. The leading argument against DOMA all along has been that the federal government lacks authority under the Constitution to create and enforce a definition of marriage different from that of the state in which a couple resides. It is hard to think of an issue more clearly reserved to state law under constitutional tradition than the definition of marriage.

The court has held that “regulation of domestic relations” has “long been regarded as a virtually exclusive province of the States” (Sosna v. Iowa, 1975). In the past, the court has recognized a “domestic relations exception” to federal judicial power. Although the legal question is close, the court could take the same path in Windsor—holding that DOMA improperly intrudes on the reserved powers of the states.

If the court dismisses the Proposition 8 case on standing grounds and strikes DOMA down on federalism grounds, the combined effect would be to reaffirm America’s democratic, decentralized decision-making process without imposing an answer—one way or the other—to the same-sex marriage question.

By taking such a path, the court would be spared from imposing a single nationwide definition of marriage as a matter of constitutional law, and from having to rule, for all time, that there is or is not a constitutional right to same-sex marriage—a momentous step that some justices might be reluctant to take. It would leave the issue to the states, at least for the time being. This course might appeal to centrist justices like Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts and Stephen Breyer—and perhaps could even command a unanimous court, which would have a welcome calming influence on the nation’s culture wars.

I’m skeptical either judgment could command a unanimous court, and am not yet convinced Prop. 8′s supporters lack standing, but certainly agree this would be a welcome approach for the Court to take (and certainly agree that the “leading argument” against DOMA is that it exceeds the scope of federal power).