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Why Today's Argument Could Decide the Gay Marriage Debate | The Nation

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Nan Hunter

Nan Hunter

Sexuality and gender: What’s law got to do with it?

Why Today's Argument Could Decide the Gay Marriage Debate


Supporters of marriage equality rally outside the Supreme Court as it considered Hollingsworth v. Perry, a challenge to California’s Proposition 8. (AP Photo/Paul Morigi.)

Friday at 10 am is the traditional conferencing time for the justices of the Supreme Court, and they are gathering this morning to preliminarily decide the outcomes of the cases in which they heard argument this week. These early outcomes can change; the result in Bowers v. Hardwick famously flipped from good to bad when Justice Lewis Powell reconsidered his vote over the weekend and changed sides. But the bottom line results in both the Prop 8 and DOMA cases may have been determined by the time you read this.

No decisions are announced, of course, until the opinions have been finalized, a lengthy process during which Justices continue to refine or even reverse their views. And it looks quite likely that there will be multiple opinions in these cases. There might be a shortcut, though, and it would imho be a happy one: The Prop 8 case could drop off the Justices’ workload very quickly, in a way that would leave in place the appeals court ruling that it is unconstitutional.

During oral argument in Hollingsworth v. Perry, Justice Kennedy wondered aloud whether the writ of certiorari should be dismissed as improvidently granted, an option that the Court occasionally utilizes when, after briefing and argument, it concludes that for some reason the particular case or question presented is not ready for prime time. A dismissal as improvidently granted (DIG) would mean that the Justices would not have to decide even the threshold standing issues in Perry, much less the constitutionality of any state laws. After Justice Kennedy’s comment, Justice Sotomayor seemed to buttress this possibility by expressing her own hesitation to force a decision on the constitutionality of marriage bans, especially for states other than California.

The backdrop for this is that it is now blazingly obvious that only the conservative Justices wanted to hear the case. That should come as no surprise, since they probably felt (and feel) reasonably confident that Justice Kennedy is not going to rule in 2013 that forty or so state marriage laws are unconstitutional, as the Perry lawyers have sought. A resounding defeat for gay marriage supporters in Perry is about the only thing that could slow down what seems like truly extraordinary momentum in public opinion, even if less so in state law, toward allowing gay couples to marry. Ultimately that bucket of cold water would be unlikely to affect more than speed, and might just make the Court itself seem out of tune with American culture. But it would not be a happy moment, to put it mildly.

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So, why wouldn’t the four liberal Justices leap at the opportunity to join Kennedy and DIG Perry, leaving the much better vehicle United States v. Windsor to command center stage in the marriage at the Supreme Court marathon? Strong customs of mutual respect, including self-restraint, are important to the functioning and legitimacy of the Court. (If you want to see what governance looks like without them, check out Congress.) One such custom is that, because a vote of four Justices suffices to grant cert, the Court will normally follow through and decide a case after it is briefed and argued, even if five Justices opposed cert. In other words, if a simple majority of Justices routinely joined to DIG a case that they didn’t want to consider in the first place, the “rule of four” for granting cert would be effectively nullified.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to hope that the Justices could be deciding this morning to DIG Perry. First, as Justice Stevens noted almost forty years ago (ironically, in a sodomy case), the custom of deference to the “rule of four” should not absolutely bar the Court from later deciding by a 5-4 vote to DIG, so long as the majority has concluded in good faith that it is unwise to proceed further in a particular case and DIGing does not become a tactical weapon in the political debates within the Court. (New York v. Uplinger, 467 U.S. 246, 251 (1984).) Second, we don’t actually know whether Justice Kennedy voted to grant cert or not. If he did, then the unwritten rule that a DIG should not happen unless a Justice who initially wanted to consider the case has changed his or her mind would be satisfied.

Bottom line: I think that there is at best a 50-50 chance, probably less, that all the necessary stars will align to give the Court a way out of deciding what I have always believed to be an ill-considered case. It is not impossible, however. And if this is the outcome in Perry, it could be announced as soon as Monday morning. (Yes, Easter Monday.) The biggest problem with that scenario: It wouldn’t give Justice Scalia enough time to write a scathingly sarcastic dissent.

Still, cross your fingers.

Although it may punt on Perry, the Supreme Court seems ready to rule soon on the constitutionality of a federal ban on same-sex marriage.

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