Supreme Court Ruling On Gay Marriage Will Forever Shape the Roberts Court's Legacy


The Defense of Marriage Act is overturned as unconstitutional, Proposition 8 is tossed out as lacking standing in court, and gay marriages can resume in the largest state in the Union. By neither legalizing nor banning same sex marriage nationwide, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has maintained itself as an ideologically divided institution not eager to rock the boat. 

Joining the court's four liberal justices, Justice Anthony Kennedy struck down DOMA as a violation of the Fifth Amendment and the principles of federalism that grant certain authorities to the federal government and others to the states. Joining the unusual coalition of Justices Antonin Scalia, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chief Justice John Roberts tossed out the case for California's gay marriage ban, Proposition 8, as lacking legal standing, thereby making gay marriage legal in California again.

In striking down DOMA, Justice Kennedy defended equal marriage rights for same sex marriages but tempered this defense with a support for state jurisdiction over the marriage question. While affirming that the federal government does not have the authority to discriminate against marriages regarded as lawful by the states, the ruling avoided applying a standard across the whole country. Justice Kennedy has long understood the Constitution to delineate powers between the federal and state governments, and in his legal view decided that marriage was a state issue and DOMA was contradictory to the Constitution.

In tossing away the Proposition 8 case, the mixed majority led by Chief Justice Roberts avoided having to decide on whether a state can ban gay marriage or not. As no state official in California would rise to defend the gay marriage ban, which was approved by California voters in 2008, the jJustices tossed out the case as lacking any standing for a successful argument in court. With the appeal denied, the current freeze on gay marriages in California will be lifted and it will become the largest state in the country to permit gay marriage. Governor Jerry Brown has ordered all counties to begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples as soon as the stay is lifted.

The Roberts Court has defined itself by slowly approaching many sensitive political questions and issuing narrow decisions on these questions, the greatest example being the decision by Chief Justice Roberts to uphold the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as constitutional under the tax powers of Congress. The Court, even when ideologically divided, has largely restrained itself from issuing broad rulings and prefers to default decisions back to Congress or the states, with Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts usually being the two who push the Court in that direction.

By removing the federal prohibition on gay marriage and avoiding a decision on the power that states have over gay marriage, the Roberts Court has greatly advanced both equal recognition for same-sex couples and a reliance on federalism. This court has thrown the ball, as it often does, back into the realm of legislation and elections, leaving it up to the people to pursue a political answer for this debate and not a legal one. As Mayor Cory Booker says on PolicyMic, the fight will now take place at the state level. The Supreme Court is happy to punt for now.