The New York Times reports that the US Supreme Court has decided to not hear appeals on three separate decisions by Federal Appeals Courts to throw out state-level bans against gay marriage. A 4th Circuit ruling against Virginia, as well as a 7th Circuit ruling against Indiana & Wisconsin and a 10th Circuit ruling against Oklahoma & Utah were all left standing after the Supreme Court refused to get involved. This, after the Court had stayed all the decisions for many months. In the succeeding weeks, gay marriage will also almost certainly begin in the six other States covered by the jurisdiction of those three Appeals Courts: New Mexico, North Carolina, Kansas, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming. This means that 11 States in total will have legalized gay marriage in short order, bringing the total number of States with marriage equality to 30, plus the District of Columbia.
The ruling is somewhat noteworthy, as it has struck most of the typically followers of the Court by surprise. Only four Justices, of course, are required to grant certiorari to a prospective case. What this means is that inch-by-inch approach commonly employed by the liberals-plus-Kennedy coalition on the Court needed at least one more adherent to prevent certiorari from being granted. I talked about this incremental approach a little last year, when the Court struck down most of the Defense of Marriage Act. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the closest thing to a moderate on the Court, joined with the four liberal Justices to hand a nominal victory to the proponents of LGBT rights, but they stopped far short of decreeing gay marriage nationwide –something that many pundits, including myself, so desperately wanted.
Accordingly, with these cases steadily making their way through the legal system, most assumed that the Court would be almost compelled to hear them and render a definitive up-or-down decision on the validity of state-level bans on gay marriage. They thought wrong.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguably the most prolific liberal on the Court, has been a particularly vocal proponent of the so-called incremental approach. She has been a somewhat active critic of the Court’s expansive ruling in Roe v. Wade, arguing it went too far too quickly and polarized the nation into incessant gridlock. On this issue, she has argued, the court should allow time for public opinion to change. And it has changed, in fact, quicker than anyone would have imagined.
Unfortunately, the court’s decision (or indecision, I suppose) did nothing to rectify the bans still present in 20 States, including Texas. Earlier this year, a Federal Judge declared Texas’ ban on gay marriage (as well as civil unions) unconstitutional, but that decision has been stayed pending appeal. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has apparently been taking their sweet time on that case, but given the extreme conservatism of that court, if there is ever an Appeals Court to affirm gay marriage bans, it would be one.
At that point, with Appellate Courts coming to opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court would almost feel compelled to step in. The four liberals, almost certainly, would want to hear the case at that time.
Without a doubt, I’m happy that the Court has decided to allow, even by omission, for marriage equality to go forward in nearly a dozen states. I just wish Texas was one of them. I think the next step will be a nationwide mandate requiring each State to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. At that point, the barriers preventing it from being performed within the State will become just too superficial to be defended.