A Celebration Of The Wurst

My dear readers,

I am very sorry that I have been absent these past few weeks.  While abroad I have missed much, the judicial decisions in Arkansas and Idaho, the oral arguments before the 4th Circuit, the goings on in Oregon, where a decision is expected to be handed down in a matter of hours from the time of this writing.  And, as warned, I missed my Eurovision recap.

Nevertheless, I do want to write a little about things on my mind related to the Eurovision Song Contest.  Being in the audience is a completely different experience than being at a party.  It is a little like Plato’s cave.  If watching online is the shadows, and a Eurovision party is the fire, then actually attending is like seeing the light of the sun.  Everyone should do it at least once.  Most of the acts are actually designed for the stage, and television obscures all the goings on–Azerbaijan’s act with the acrobat is a good example.  The cameras can show the woman or the acrobat, but not both.  Or at least not often.   In the audience however, you can see it all.  (On the other hand, the excellent Dutch entry benefited from television because the song was free of gimmicks, and the cameras could focus on a specific musician and nothing was lost.  That however, was a rarity.)  Television also cannot show the stagecraft so well, such as the interesting way lights were used (Sweden).

But the best part of the show is the audience and watching the way the performers feed of the audience excitement.  Being in Copenhagen, Denmark’s entry got a very warm reception (as did neighbors Norway and Sweden).  But the real story of course was Conchita Wurst, the bearded Austrian drag queen who won the competition.  The largest applause of the night was for her.  You can sort of hear in the television feed the audience singing along Conchita whenever she get to the chorus, particularly the “Riiiiiiiiiiise like a phoenix” line.  I can assure you that it was much louder in the hall.  When the song ended, the cheering was so boisterous and the excitement so palpable, my partner turned to me and said, “We have a winner.”

It should come as no surprise that the live Eurovision audience is comprised largely, perhaps mostly, of gay men.  In the run up to the competition, Eurovision and Copenhagen had been doing everything possible to make gay men feel welcome (the amount of emails I got telling me to get gay-married in Copenhagen would make a Jewish mother blush).  There were practically as many pride flags at Eurovision as national flags.  This embrace was a sharp contrast to the homophobia coming out of Eastern Europe in the past year, particularly the Russian government.  After watching Russia pass laws designed to demean gay people and tear about their families, gays had the further humiliation of witnessing the world not care.  The Sochi Olympics proved exactly how little regard we are actually held in when money and diplomacy are on the line.  When members of the Russian government (and from Russia’s annoying little sibling Belarus) started attacking Conchita, a gay man when in not in drag, she became the symbol of the LGBT community’s resistance to Russia.  In Eurovision terms, Conchita won the all-important gay bloc vote, a bloc that had not come together in such solidarity since 1998 for Dana International’s win.  (The animosity toward Russia also extended to the Russian entry, the Tolmachevy twins, who received loud boos after their performance and even louder one every time they were awarded 8, 10, 0r 12 points during the voting.  They themselves did not deserve such treatment, but it underscored the anger at Russia.)  That Russian government officials completely flipped out afterwards, combined with the knowledge that Conchita came in third in the Russian televote (and that her song went to the top of Russia’s iTunes chart), only made her win that much sweeter.  Conchita has before and since been an eloquent and elegant spokesperson for the LGBT community, which is another reason for the rallying behind her.  She fended off the ugliest homophobia with grace and panache.

2014 may well  the year of the European drag queen.  Earlier this year, the Irish gay rights activist and drag queen Panti Bliss (real name Rory O’Neill) discussed homophobia in Ireland and called out certain journalists and institutions for their homophobic actions and writings.  Those who were named threatened to sue O’Neill and the broadcast network for libel.  (Ireland, like Britain, has ridiculous libel laws.)  The network settled, and in response, O’Neill, as Panti, gave a speech in response at the Abbey Theater in Dublin.  It is a remarkable speech about the events and about homophobia that deserves to be watched in its entirety.  The video has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

So to date, an Irish drag queen gave one of the best speeches in that nation’s history and an Austrian drag queen won the world’s biggest music contest.  And the year is not even half over.

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Michiganers May Marry

Another day, another state marriage ban on same-sex marriage falls.  This time, the case, DeBoer v. Snyder, from Michigan.  The legal portion of the opinion is not particularly groundbreaking albeit emotionally compelling.  Judge Bernard Friedman (a Reagan appointee, not that it matters) struck down the law based on a rational basis review under the Equal Protection Clause.  Other courts have been more groundbreaking legally or have interpreted United States v. Windsor more expansively, but Judge Friedman’s opinion is just as important, although for a completely different reason.

Until now, every post-Windsor victory has come via summary judgment, or in the case of Texas, preliminary injunction.  This means that none of those cases has gone to trial.  DeBoer however, did go to trial, and the reason for that is because unlike the other cases, DeBoer actually predates the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision.  Originally DeBoer was about adoption rights.  The lesbian plaintiffs–who are a couple–could not jointly adopt their three children because Michigan law allows only married couples to jointly adopt, and same-sex couples cannot marry under the Michigan constitution.  The plaintiffs, when they initially went to court, were concerned only about adoption not marriage.  Judge Friedman concluded that the plaintiffs were making the wrong argument.  He offered the plaintiffs the chance to amend their complaint to challenge the state’s marriage ban, which they did.  Michigan filed to dismiss the complaint, and Judge Friedman put the case on hold until after the Supreme Court handed down Windsor.

Following Windsor, Judge Friedman concluded that he could not just grant summary judgment to either side.  Therefore, he ordered a trial to be fast tracked.  After this decision, federal courts in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, and Ohio all struck down state marriage bans in part or in total.  I suspect (but cannot prove) that had the summary judgment motions in DeBoer been considered after other post-Windsor decisions, Judge Friedman would have also issued summary judgment.  Judges are conservative creatures by nature, and when there is no precedent (like, for example, four or five other federal judges striking down marriage bans on preliminary motions), they are more likely to act methodically.  In this case, “methodically” meant a full trial in which both sides brought in expert witnesses.

What makes the Michigan case so important however, is the trial itself.  Trials are slow, frustrating, and boring.  Yet, now when these cases finally reach the Supreme Court there will be a record of a neutral arbiter hearing the actual evidence and deciding accordingly.  Appellate courts hear the law, but the fact finder (usually the jury, but in this case the trial judge) hears the facts, which the appellate court almost never touches.  In this case, Michigan’s entire argument was based around a belief that marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples because children do better in homes with a mother and a father.  Judge Friedman found the evidence presented at trial did not support this argument.  Ergo, Michigan had no legitimate reason to ban same-sex marriage (the test for rational basis review).  While an appellate court may say that Judge Friedman somehow misapplied the law, that court will almost certainly not dispute his findings.  In other words, no future opinion in this case will look at the record and conclude that heterosexual couples make better parents.  Which means that Michigan’s central argument will not hold water.

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DeBoer was not the first trial in which a state constitutional amendment was adjudicated (and struck down).  The Prop 8 case also went to trial, although because of its procedural issues, the Supreme Court never addressed the substance of the case.  That will not happen here; Michigan will fight until the end.

Back when Prop 8 was being litigated, supporters of same-sex marriage had mounds of evidence on their side whereas opponents were caught pretty much flat-footed.  Their expert witnesses were terrible on the stand, and for good reason; few of them were anything remotely like experts.  None of them held up under David Bois’s ruthless cross-examination.  One of opponents’ witnesses, David Blakenhorn, has even since reversed his position and now supports marriage equality.

Following their humiliation in California, right-wing institutes, most prominently the Heritage Foundation, commissioned a series of studies in which data was manipulated so as to appear that children who grow up in same-sex households suffer as compared to their peers.  Unsurprisingly, the authors of these studies had a not-very-hidden religious and conservative agenda.  The most infamous of these studies was authored by University of Texas sociologist (and arch-Catholic) Mark Regnerus.  His study, the New Family Structures Study (“NFSS”), was designed with litigation (specifically Supreme Court litigation) as the ultimate goal.  Almost from the moment the NFSS was published, it was attacked for its faulty methodology and disingenuous conclusions.  Regnerus’s own university condemned his study (and did so again on the eve of his testimony in Michigan).  The journal that published the NFSS commissioned an internal audit following the outcry and concluded that the study should not have been published at all.  Nevertheless, equality opponents trumpeted the NFSS and groomed Regnerus for trial.  (The same criticism is true about all the studies from all the state’s expert witnesses, and Judge Friedman dismissed them all accordingly.)

At trial, Regnerus and all of the other state’s experts folded under the intense questioning of ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper.  Regnerus in particular was absolutely humiliated on the stand.  Nathaniel Frank wrote a great summation of how Cooper tore apart Regnerus.  For my own part, from following the trial and reading the background, I suspected that this trial could only come out in favor of the lesbian plaintiffs.  Therefore, I was–for the first time–less interested in the law than in the facts of the case, which I usually skip altogether.  In particular, I eagerly awaited Judge Friedman’s take on Regnerus and his study.

I was not disappointed.  Judge Friedman did not just disregard the NFSS, he (there is only one to say this) tore Mark Regnerus a new asshole.  I highly recommend the entire opinion, but in particular the section on Regnerus is pure gold and must be highlighted.

The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration. The evidence adduced at trial demonstrated that his 2012 “study” was hastily concocted at the behest of a third-party funder, which found it “essential that the necessary data be gathered to settle the question in the forum of public debate about what kinds of family arrangement are best for society” and which “was confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study.”  In the funder’s view, “the future of the institution of marriage at this moment is very uncertain” and “proper research” was needed to counter the many studies showing no differences in child outcomes.  The funder also stated that “this is a project where time is of the essence.”  Time was of the essence at the time of the funder’s comments in April 2011, and when Dr. Regnerus published the NFSS in 2012, because decisions such as Perry v. Schwarzenegger, and Windsor v. United States, [ed: these are the trial court decisions, not the Supreme Court decisions] were threatening the funder’s concept of “the institution of marriage.”

While Regnerus maintained that the funding source did not affect his impartiality as a researcher, the Court finds this testimony unbelievable. The funder clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged. Additionally, the NFSS is flawed on its face, as it purported to study “a large, random sample of American young adults (ages 18-39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements” (emphasis added), but in fact it did not study this at all, as Regnerus equated being raised by a same-sex couple with having ever lived with a parent who had a “romantic relationship with someone of the same sex” for any length of time. Whatever Regnerus may have found in this “study,” he certainly cannot purport to have undertaken a scholarly research effort to compare the outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples with those of children raised by heterosexual couples. It is no wonder that the NFSS has been widely and severely criticized by other scholars, and that Regnerus’s own sociology department at the University of Texas has distanced itself from the NFSS in particular and Dr. Regnerus’s views in general and reaffirmed the aforementioned [American Psychological Association] position statement.

DeBoer v. Snyder, Slip Opinion, pages 13-14.  (Citations omitted, but the scare quotes around “study” are directly from the opinion.)  Judge Friedman flat-out called Regnerus a liar and a hack, which is a strong accusation for a judicial opinion, especially one of such import.  Regnerus’s reputation was weak before, but now it is in complete tatters.  In the legal world, he is persona non grata.

The reason DeBoer is so important is that this trial highlighted the best arguments the anti-equality forces could muster, and now they have run out of time.  Marriage equality had previously won on the law; now it has indisputably won on the facts too.  Full marriage equality is a matter of when not if.  And as a happy coda, Judge Friedman did not stay his decision.  As of Saturday March 22, 2014, the day after the decision, same-sex marriage comes to Michigan as four counties have announced they will start issuing licenses (until a stay is inevitably issued).

[Update: The Sixth Circuit issued a stay Saturday afternoon after 300 couples married.]

Finally, the plaintiffs reading the decision:

Breaking News: Texas Messed With

Today, yet another federal judge struck down yet another state marriage ban.  Again, the judge relied on United States v. Windsor, which is truly the gift that keeps on giving.  This time the state is Texas.  Texas is not necessarily the worst state in the country (that dubious honor perpetually belongs to Mississippi), but, Austin excluded, Texas has a pretty bad reputation, especially under the ever-growing Tea Party influence.  Unfortunately, Texas is the second most populous state in the country and is vitally important to the national economy, so as much as some of us may wish Mexico would take it back, that just ain’t gonna happen.

Since Windsor, marriage bans in full or in part have fallen in states with particularly heinous records on gay rights: Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Kentucky, and now Texas.  Texas was one of the few states that still enforced sodomy laws, and was the opposition party in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case which struck down those laws.  The decision out of Texas today is not particularly groundbreaking legally–the ban was struck down through both a rational basis review under the Equal Protection Clause and a strict scrutiny review of the Due Process Clause–but that is only because at this point in time (post-Windsor) such an expansive decision is legally conservative.  This decision will be appealed to the very conservative 5th Circuit, and that will be the most interesting decision yet: either the most conservative court in the country will buck the heretofore unanimous trend and find in favor of a state ban or it will acknowledge that Windsor effectively prohibits such bans.

However the 5th Circuit rules, these cases are headed back to the Supreme Court–and sooner rather than later.  Within a matter of months, there will be decisions out of the 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th, and 10th Circuits.  Can the others be far behind (excluding the 1st and 2nd in which all the states are marriage equality states)?   My question is not about when the Supreme Court takes up the issue, because the answer is obviously next term.  My question is whether the Supreme Court will review just one of those cases (a la Windsor) or combine all of the pending cases into a days-long super-case like Brown v. Board of Education.

Stay tuned.

Misreading Windsor

Ever since the Supreme Court handed down United States v. Windsor last June, law professors and journalists have pondered over what it meant and criticized the majority’s perceived lack of clarity.  There are two major complaints: (1) ambiguous categorization; and (2) whether Windsor‘s holding relied on principles of federalism or Equal Protection.  

The complaint about ambiguous categorization in Windsor is a fair one.  When courts review laws that discriminate against a certain group, courts do so using a certain framework created by the Supreme Court to determine whether those laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.  In most instances, the government–the defending party in such cases is always a governmental body–is given the benefit of the doubt and the law is upheld.  This is called rational basis review.  But when it comes to certain categories of people, the so-called “suspect classes,” the standard the government needs to meet is much higher, and therefore those laws are generally deemed unconstitutional.  This is called “heightened scrutiny.”  The major categorizations for suspect classes are race, gender, and national origin.

Sexual orientation is not one of the suspect classes that I named.  Despite the outcomes in Windsor and its predecessor cases Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court never explicitly said whether sexual orientation is a suspect class.  The judiciary, federal and state, has taken all sorts of approaches absent Supreme Court guidance.  In recent months, some federal courts, most notably the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, have looked at Windsor and decided that even though the Supreme Court was not explicit, overall jurisprudence indicates that gays and lesbians are indeed a suspect class.  This is the rationale behind the gay juror case that I addressed in my last post.

As I said above, this continued explicit guidance is a fair criticism.  I do not particularly agree with it, because I think the Ninth Circuit read the tea leaves correctly.  Nevertheless, I can understand the frustration and acknowledge its validity.

The other complaint though, I do not understand at all.  It follows as such: the Windsor majority left the judiciary in limbo because the Court did not distinguish whether Windsor was a federalism decision (i.e. whether the federal government unconstitutionally encroached onto states’ rights) or an Equal Protection decision.  This is important because when state bans on same-sex marriage come before courts, those bans will probably fail under an Equal Protection framework but succeed under a federalism one.  On Slate, Dahlia Lithwick and David S. Cohen co-wrote a column suggesting that Windsor is an Equal Protection decision, not because the Supreme Court wrote it that way, but because subsequent state and federal judges have unanimously interpreted it as such.  By Lithwick and Cohen’s count 18 of 18 court decisions (and 32 of 32 judges) have all come to this conclusion.  That unanimity is essential to Lithwick and Cohen’s thesis.  They posit that judges could have interpreted Windsor as a federalism decision, but because they are universally choosing not to do so, eventually nation-wide marriage equality is inevitable.

I don’t disagree with Lithwick and Cohen’s conclusions; Windsor is indeed an Equal Protection decision, and marriage equality is inevitable.  Where I disagree with them–and all the other law professors and journalists who have spilled much ink on this subject–is this misconception that the Windsor majority was unclear.  Windsor is not an Equal Protection decision because subsequent federal judges read it as such; Windsor is an Equal Protection decision because Windsor is an Equal Protection decision.  This is not a tautology; the Court’s methodology is in the text, and it is not hidden.  The reason that 32 of 32 judges have decided the way they did is because they can read.

I believe that the bulk of the Windsor decision comes not from the majority opinion, but from the dissents.  There are two dissents of note in Windsor, one from Chief Justice John Roberts, and the other from Justice Antonin Scalia.  (There was another one from Justice Samuel Alito, which amounts to, “I’m scared of new things because I don’t understand them, and I don’t like them.”  As such this dissent has been forgotten.)  Scalia’s decision is the more famous of the two, because it was written by Justice Scalia.  When he dissents, he fulminates with puffed up, operatic rage.  In his Windsor dissent, Scalia rewrote the majority opinion to apply to state laws.  Perhaps he thought he was being cutting, but to date at least four federal judges who ruled in favor of equality have cited his dissent as a basis for their opinions–classic benchslap.

While Scalia’s opinion is the more significant dissent, Roberts’s opinion is the reason why everyone is confused.  The Roberts dissent tried to limit the scope of Windsor by painting the majority decision as a federalism decision.  Significantly, none of the other dissenting Justices signed on to the Roberts dissent.  Scalia mocked it.  So why have so many law professors, pundits, and journalists wondered whether Windsor is federalism opinion?  Perhaps it is because John Roberts is a very smart man.  Perhaps it is because no one wants to believe that the Chief Justice of the United States deliberately misinterpreted a judicial opinion in a way unworthy of the cheapest political hack.  Perhaps it is because they need something to debate.  I have no idea, but they are wrong.

While at least three or four federal judges have gone toe-to-toe with Scalia, not even one has engaged the Roberts dissent.  Yes, they have heard federalism arguments, and yes, they all held that Windsor is not about federalism, but they have not refuted Roberts’s dissent so much as ignored it.  There is a reason for that, and it is not just that Roberts, whose opinion lacked hysteria, is a far less easy target to mock.

On pages 18 and 19 of the Windsor slip opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy addresses the question about whether Windsor is a federalism opinion.  (Highlighting is mine, and I removed citations to previous cases, but otherwise kept the citation intact.)

Against this background DOMA rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next. Despite these considerations, it is unnecessary to decide whether this federal intrusion on state power is a violation of the Constitution because it disrupts the federal balance. The State’’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance in this case quite apart from principles of federalism. Here the State’’s decision to give this class of persons the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import. When the State used its historic and essential authority to define the marital relation in this way, its role and its power in making the decision enhanced the recognition, dignity, and protection of the class in their own community. DOMA, because of its reach and extent, departs from this history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage. ““‘‘[D]iscriminations of an unusual character especially suggest careful consideration to determine whether they are obnoxious to the constitutional provision.’’””

The Federal Government uses this state-defined class for the opposite purpose——to impose restrictions and disabilities. That result requires this Court now to address whether the resulting injury and indignity is a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment. What the State of New York treats as alike the federal law deems unlike by a law designed to injure the same class the State seeks to protect.

Kennedy’s language is flowery, as is his wont.  Nevertheless, his meaning is quite clear.  This quoted section is the pivot in the legal reasoning.  Prior to this excerpt, Kennedy wrote in great detail about federalism principles, and how it has historically been the right of the states to define marriage.  Had he stopped there, Windsor would have indeed been a federalism decision.  But in the above excerpt Kennedy writes that it is not principles of federalism that are central to Edie Windsor’s case.  Federalism principles mattered in Windsor only because Congress’ violation of those principles in enacting DOMA signaled a suspicious and insidious ulterior motive.  That something, Kennedy concludes in the next section, was animus toward gays and lesbians, which is unconstitutional under the implied equal protection guarantees of the 5th Amendment.*

Scalia understood all this and would not let it go unchallenged.  He also understood, that if the judicially manufactured equal protection guarantees of the 5th Amendment applies to same-sex couples, then the next logical step is that the actual equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment must also apply.  The only possible outcome is for state bans on marriage equality to also fail constitutional scrutiny.  The Windsor majority may not have explicitly stated this, but their inherent message to the federal judiciary was equally loud and clear as Scalia’s overwrought one.  That is why all subsequent decisions have unanimously sided with marriage equality.

Footnotes:  

*  There is no Equal Protection Clause in the 5th Amendment; the Equal Protection Clause is unique to the 14th Amendment.  The 14th Amendment however, applies only to the states and not the federal government, which could have been a source of major embarrassment for a Supreme Court that wanted to combat discrimination.  The most famous use of the manufactured 5th Amendment equal protection guarantees is found in Brown v. Board of Education.  There were actually five cases collectively known as Brown, and one of those cases, Bolling v. Sharpe, came from Washington DC.  As Washington DC is not a state and under federal government control, the 14th Amendment does not apply.  Thus, the Warren Court used the 5th Amendment for the DC case and the 14th Amendment for the state cases .

The Ongoing Saga Of Marriage Equality In Utah

When we last left off, a federal judge named Robert Shelby held that Utah’s ban against same-sex marriage (and same-sex partnerships of any kind) was a violation of the Constitution.  Immediately following the ruling, same-sex couples rushed to get marriage licenses.  That they were able to do this was in part due to the incompetence of the embattled Utah Attorney General’s Office which neglected to properly file for a stay of judgment.  When the AG properly filed for a stay, both Judge Shelby and (on appeal) the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to grant it.  Shelby’s refusal was not surprising given his earlier ruling, but the denial of stay from the Tenth Circuit was definitely a shock.  First, the Tenth Circuit is one of the more conservative in the country, which is not surprising considering that it has jurisdiction over Utah, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Kansas.  Second, in denying the stay, the Tenth Circuit effectively played its hand, and let it be known how it planned on ruling.  In such a weighty case, a denial of stay is rare absent an almost overwhelming certainty that one side will win.  (Two comparisons are useful.  The much more liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the decision in the Prop 8 case pending a decision by the Supreme Court.  Post-Windsor, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected a stay from the Christie Administration, which led to the Administration dropping its case.)

Utah appealed the stay denial to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Circuit Justice for the Tenth Circuit.  She in turn referred the matter to the full Supreme Court which issued a stay.  This is not actually surprising.  The Supreme Court is a very conservative institution.  Not necessarily in the political sense (although it is currently that too), but in that the Justices are terrified of being seen as moving too quickly.  Remember, the Utah case (Kitchen v. Herbert) has not actually been litigated; Judge Shelby granted a motion for summary judgment, and no trial was held.  Had the Supreme Court also denied a stay, it would have sent a message to every trial and appellate judge in the country that bans on marriage equality were effectively dead without even a consideration of the issue.  That is much too fast for the Supreme Court.  (So please calm down, Jeffrey Toobin.)  The stay is written such that it is effective until the Tenth Circuit makes a determination.  The case has already been fast-tracked on that court’s docket.  Expect the issuance of another stay if the Tenth Circuit finds for the same-sex couples.

This is all basically cut and dry.  Very legal and routine.  After this point though, things get a little bit dicey.  In response to the Supreme Court’s stay, the Governor of Utah (the Herbert of Kitchen v. Herbert) told the state not to recognize the over 1300 same-sex marriages that had already taken place.  Although this action pleased homophobic activists like Brian Brown and Tony Perkins, the Governor is completely in the wrong.  The Supreme Court stay stopped the state from issuing any further marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but the Court said nothing about the ones that already took place.  Which, I might add, were performed legally under a decision that has not yet been overturned.  The legality of those marriage may yet be up for debate, but not at this time.  (For a comparison, the same-sex marriages in California that occurred between the In Re Marriage Cases decision and the passage of Prop 8 a few months later were still deemed valid by the California Supreme Court.)

The Tenth Circuit will not look kindly on Utah’s actions–first because the Governor has countermanded a court order, and second, because the Governor has caused an actual harm.  Needless to say, the ACLU has already begun the process of challenging Utah’s refusal to recognize the 1300 legally married same-sex couple.  Expect litigation to be undertaken immediately, as there is no shortage of plaintiffs.  In response to Utah, the Obama Administration announced that it will recognize those 1300 Utahan marriages for all federal purposes (immigration, tax, Social Security, and the like).  This a major, if expected, triumph and it largely offsets much of the damage done by Utah’s state government.  It also sets up a direct challenge for the Supreme Court that will be hard to ignore.  There can be no federalism feint anymore; Kitchen v Herbert is all about the equality of gays and lesbians and the fundamental nature of marriage.

Marriage Equality Comes To New Jersey

[Editor’s Note: This post was written on October 18th, but posted on October 19th.  Every time I say “Today” it refers to the date of writing rather than publication.]

Today the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down an opinion denying a stay in a case called Garden State Equality v. Dow.  This is the first major state high court decision to come down following the US Supreme Court’s Windsor decision.  Not to toot my own horn, but for months I had been telling anyone who would listen exactly how Garden State Equality would be decided and that marriage equality was inevitable.  Even though the case is technically ongoing, today’s decision proves me right.

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To understand Garden State Equality, one must first go back to 2006 and a New Jersey Supreme Court case called Lewis v. Harris, the first time the Court considered marriage equality.  Lewis was both a landmark and a disappointment.  It was a disappointment because the Court, in a 4-3 split, held that although the New Jersey State Constitution required that same-sex couples be treated equal to heterosexual couples, it was the Legislature’s discretion to determine whether that meant marriages or civil unions.  The Legislature opted for the latter.  Yet Lewis was also a landmark because for the first time every Justice on a state high court agreed that same-sex couples deserved equal treatment.  The “dissenters” would have gone further than the majority and mandated full marriage equality.

Lewis, for its flaws, laid the groundwork for future victory.  Civil unions are okay so long as couples are treated equally, but if that were not the case, then the state had to offer marriage.  Almost immediately after Lewis was handed down, LGBT rights groups operating in New Jersey (Garden State Equality, Lambda Legal, etc.) started gathering evidence to prove that civil unions were not equal.  Simultaneously, LGBT organizations lobbied the Legislature to enact a real marriage equality law–first unsuccessfully in the waning days of the Corzine regime and then successfully during this current term, but vetoed by the Governor Chris Christie.   This meant that there were two options left for LGBT rights groups: (1) get enough votes to overturn Christie’s veto (currently ongoing); or (2) convince the New Jersey Supreme Court that civil unions are inherently unequal (or to quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Skim-Milk Marriage“).  Both of those paths however, would take a lot of time and effort, and neither was guaranteed.

And then came Windsor.

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In the near future, I hope to write two posts about the recent gains of the gay rights movement.  The first is about the almost unrealistic nationwide and worldwide progress made in the past year.  The second is specifically about United States v. Windsor, a case that I would argue is not only the most important case in the history of the American LGBT rights movement, but also the most important American civil rights case since Brown v. Board of Education.  The implications of Windsor have only begun to be felt, but its impact has already been tremendous.  The decision in New Jersey today (and others that will follow in state and federal courts over the next couple of years) is solely because of Windsor.  It is not a stretch to say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and above all Anthony Kennedy are five of the six people most directly responsible for today’s victory.

The sixth person most directly responsible is Barack Obama.  When Windsor was handed down, Obama ordered all federal agencies to fully comply.  Every same-sex married couple is now treated equally in terms of federal benefits so long as the marriage is valid, i.e., recognized by the state where the marriage took place.  Social security, Medicare, immigration, military and veterans benefits, family medical leave, federal estate tax, joint filing, health insurance for spouses of federal employees–the list of federal benefits goes on and on.

President Obama also made a tremendous and specific impact in New Jersey because he instructed that federal benefits applied only to married couples, not those partnered in civil unions.  Those of us who understood what he was doing rejoiced.  Effectively, he told the courts that in terms of marriage he would not allow or accept “separate but equal.”*  Marriage is marriage and nothing else is adequate for federal purposes.**

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When Garden State Equality came before Judge Mary Jacobson in the New Jersey Superior Court this summer, the legal team for the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment.  Basically, this means that (in a civil trial) one party in the case believes the law and the facts are so overwhelmingly on his/her/their side as to render a trial completely unnecessary.  In Garden State Equality, the plaintiffs argued that the lack of federal benefits to partners in civil unions meant that they would be treated patently unequal and only by offering full marriage equality could New Jersey correct the harm.  Although everyone files motions for summary judgment, granting them, especially in such major cases, is a rarity.  It is practically an invitation for an appellate court to overturn to overturn a trial court, something trial court judges hate.  (Also, judges tend to believe that everyone has a right to argue their day in court.)

Garden State Equality is as close to a perfect case as you can get for granting a motion for summary judgment.  Because of the Lewis demand for equality, the Windsor requirement that the federal government recognize married same-sex couples,*** and the Obama Administration’s refusal to treat marriages and civil unions equally, it was unthinkable that this case could result in anything other than a win for the plaintiffs.  On September 27, 2013, Judge Jacobson granted the motion for summary judgment and held that New Jersey had to offer marriage equality as of October 21.  The Christie Administration asked for a stay in judgment–asked the court to put the decision on hold until the case worked its way through the appellate courts.  Judge Jacobson refused.  Rather than appeal to the next level, the Christie Administration went straight to the top and appealed directly to the State Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case in January.  The Christie Administration also asked the Court for an emergency stay in judgement.  It was not so unusual–or unreasonable–a request.  (For example, in the Prop 8 case, the Court of Appeals put a stay on the trial court’s decision to strike down the law so that it could be litigated up to the US Supreme Court.)

Today the State Supreme Court came down with a ruling, and it was a doozy.  The Court denied the Christie Administration’s request for a stay, which means that same-sex marriages start at 12:01 a.m on October 21 (and there will be City Halls open at 12:01 a.m.)  Frankly, I was a bit surprised; granting a stay is almost routine–again, especially in such a major case with such big implications.  What is more amazing though is that the judicial opinion written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, and joined in full by the entire Court, was a decision on the merits of the case, which is almost never done when deciding whether to grant a stay.  Moreover, the Court all but said how it was planning to rule in January: “[T]he State has not shown a reasonable probability that it will succeed on the merits.”  In other words, although the case is not officially over, it’s over.

Everyone knows that the case is over.  Even Chris Christie, rather than fume and rage, has simply said that he disagrees with the decision but has ordered state officials to comply.  The outcome was inevitable.  Windsor made it so, and sooner rather than later all states will have marriage equality.

[Postscript: On Monday October 21, Governor Christie advised the State to withdraw its appeal.  It is theoretically possible but doubtful that a third-party will be allowed to intervene.  Therefore, most likely there will not be an oral argument in January, and undoubtedly marriage equality is now the law of New Jersey from here on out. ]

Footnotes:

* This was not a surprising position from the President.  During the Windsor/Prop 8 arguments, the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to rule that civil union states must adopt marriage–the so-called “Eight State Solution” (which will dwindle to six as of Monday).  Allegedly, the President was involved in crafting the Eight-State Solution.

** There was an argument put forward that civil unions are a form a marriage and the federal government should recognize them as such.  It’s a rational argument legally but deeply problematic in real world application.  Among those problems is, who would defend civil unions before a court?  A Democrat-led state government won’t do it because they favor marriage equality (the same is true for the vast majority of same-sex couples), and a Republican-led state government won’t do it because that would be a defense of the rights of gays and lesbians.  Although the Christie Administration did argue this position before the New Jersey courts, those courts cannot force the federal government to comply with New Jersey law.  Had the Christie Administration sued the federal government in federal court to demand recognition of civil unions, then I am certain the state case would have been put on hold until the federal case was decided.  It’s a moot point now for New Jersey, but I suspect other courts looking at civil union claims will see that New Jersey’s Supreme Court made the distinction and will subsequently follow.

*** In Windsor, the Supreme Court did not address civil unions because that was not part of the case.  Nevertheless, reading between the lines of the majority opinion, one gets the sense that the majority, if faced with the question, would not find civil unions equal to marriage.

What’s Important

This year is the first that I have ever donated to a political cause, and it has been for the marriage equality campaigns in Maryland, Maine, Washington, and Minnesota. Obviously, marriage equality is extremely important to and personal for me, but it goes well beyond my own personal beliefs and wishes. Same-sex couples are routinely denied entitlements which heterosexual couples take for granted, including (but not limited to) hospital visitation, joint adoption of children, survivors’ benefits, and even simple recognition from one’s community. The equality laws in Maine, Maryland, and Washington guarantee that, at least at the state level, those benefits will be bestowed; the Minnesota amendment ensures that they will be denied.

For two years I lived in Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts, and during those two years I watched the struggle for marriage equality in that state very closely. I saw both the brightest side of humanity and the darkest. I also witnessed Mitt Romney’s craven and despicable actions. I will never forgive him for the evil that he did. He was defeated then, but this is the man who thinks he should be President.

The anti-equality forces are so desperately trying to portray their position as not bigoted, because they know they know that it is. Marriage, as the law defines it, is a governmental institution. Like it or not, agree or disagree with whether the state should be involved, that is the reality of the situation, full stop. Without laws guaranteeing marriage equality, unions between same-sex couples are permitted to be treated as inferior. The anti-equality forces may want to portray their opposition as something other than bigotry, but that is smoke and mirrors. Their opposition is prejudice, it is homophobia, and it is hatred. It is the doing of actual harm to people who have never harmed others only because of who they are.

If we truly believe that liberty and equality are virtue guaranteed to all souls, then there should be no question how to vote on marriage equality. I so want to believe that the better angels of our nature will finally win out.

Vote for equality in Maine, Maryland, and Washington. Vote against bigotry in Minnesota.

Yes it’s time, but it’s more than that. It’s time long overdue.