DOMA and Prop 8: SCOTUS Favors States' Rights Over Federal Rights


Personally, I don't have a dog in the fight when it comes to gay marriage, good or bad.  Personally, I feel that all state-defined marriage is a bad thing. I firmly believe the state should remove itself from the definition and simply enforce contractual relationships between two consenting individuals. That said, I know the Court would not make that decision on Tuesday and therefore I find the decisions a good pair.

Undoubtedly, religious conservatives will find fault with these decisions. They’re wrong to do so. Those that are celebrating are individuals who value the concept of federalism espoused in our Constitution (many of whom are the self-described social conservatives). In both cases, the Supreme Court upheld essential part of that very concept. In United States v. Windsor, the federal court correctly recognized that the federal government cannot deny benefits to certain classes of people properly recognized under state law. In other words, if New York decides to recognize gay marriage and issue the benefits thereof, the federal government cannot discriminate against those couples in terms of how it applies its benefits given to married couples. Social Security benefits are the first that come to mind here.

Again, should New York make that legal recognition for their own peoples’ relationships, the federal government is not entitled to deny benefits available to all other folks simply because it doesn’t agree with the State’s legal application of rights and liberties. The concept essentially says that such legal classifications emanate from the states, not the Federal government. That is the proper application if the Court is not entirely willing to remove the state (small “s”) from marriage altogether.

Here’s an important statement from the end of that decision:

The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State. DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. [Emphasis Added]

Look, the end goal here should be to remove the state from marriage and affirm its responsibility to provide a proper venue to adjudicate disputes between parties to contracts. That is a radical position, admittedly, and one that will take years to build support for in the population. That said, I’m OK with today’s decision for what it is – a removal of the Federal government from the definition of marriage and remittance back to the States to where it belongs.

Now, onto Hollingsworth v. Perry. The decision here is the absolutely correct one. Standing is an important legal concept that defines who a proper party is to a lawsuit, and is important in helping the courts define whether or not they are the proper venue for adjudication of disputes. An entire body of law is dedicated to defining this concept, both in terms of statute and case law, that guides our American jurisprudence. That five justices on the Supreme Court who we would generally not look to as being agreeable in political persuasion came to this decision speaks volumes about its correctness. From Chief Justice Roberts speaking for the majority:

Petitioners argue that the California Constitution and its election laws give them a “‘unique,’ ‘special,’ and ‘distinct’ role in the initiative process — one ‘involving both authority and responsibilities that differ from other supporters of the measure.’” True enough — but only when it comes to the process of enacting the law. Upon submitting the proposed initiative to the attorney general, petitioners became the official “proponents” of Proposition 8. As such, they were responsible for collecting the signatures required to qualify the measure for the ballot. §§9607–9609. After those signatures were collected, the proponents alone had the right to file the measure with election officials to put it on the ballot. Petitioners also possessed control over the arguments in favor of the initiative that would appear in California’s ballot pamphlets.

But once Proposition 8 was approved by the voters, the measure became “a duly enacted constitutional amendment or statute.” Petitioners have no role—special or otherwise — in the enforcement of Proposition 8. They therefore have no “personal stake” in defending its enforcement that is distinguishable from the general interest of every citizen of California. [Emphasis Added]

This is important. Citizens do have a right to see their laws enforced equally and fairly. However, we also empower our elected officials and bureaucracy to defend those laws in court viewed as important and letting die those that are not. Simply put, our right to see laws enforced in a certain fashion manifests itself through our elections. The federal government correctly recognized it does not have the authority and jurisdiction to force states to enforce state laws that its citizens demand it enforce, and properly failed to grant standing to those citizens. That is an important limit on Federal powers and a recognition of state powers.

Two good decisions today from a legal standpoint.