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Proposition 8 Oral Arguments Explained

| March 26, 2013
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After a long and winding road, Proposition 8 had its day at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. For more than an hour, the justices of the high court grilled attorneys on California’s same-sex marriage ban.

File photo of Supreme Court justices. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

File photo of Supreme Court justices. (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

The oral arguments were dominated by the question of standing, which focused on whether the authors of Prop. 8 have the legal right to defend the measure in court when the state refused to do so. Justices also grappled over the meaning of marriage and what role the court system should have in changing long-held traditions.

The questions that justices ask can shed light on their concerns and how they might rule. KQED spoke with Vikram Amar, a professor of law at UC Davis, about what certain arguments could mean.

Standing

Amar: I thought there were three, maybe four, maybe five justices already who expressed significant skepticism about whether the sponsors have standing to defend Prop. 8.

Only Justice Scalia seemed to ask questions that supported the standing of the sponsors. But Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan and Justice Roberts and then, at the end, Justice Kennedy, when he said there was a substantial question over standing. All of them intimated that this may not be an appropriate vehicle for federal courts to weigh in, because the sponsors don’t really have a direct tie to the people and voters of California as to be able to step in their shoes, and speak for the state, when the attorney general and the governor declined to defend.

There is at least a very good chance that this case will get resolved on standing grounds.

Interestingly, the liberal justices, as I said, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Kagan, Justice Breyer, asked a lot of questions that suggested that they were skeptical of the sponsor standing. That is a signal to me that they would rather let Prop. 8 die a California-specific death on standing grounds, because if there’s no standing, then basically the Ninth Circuit decision is wiped out, and the plaintiffs will win a narrow victory in the district court. But, not necessarily [a win] that spills over to affect people from any other state, and maybe not even other same-sex couples in California, at least not for the moment.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Mr. Cooper, we have jurisdictional and merits issues here. Maybe it’d be best if you could begin with the standing issue.

MR. COOPER: I’d be happy to, Mr. Chief Justice. Your Honor, the official proponents of Proposition 8, the initiative, have standing to defend that measure before this Court as representatives of the people and the State of California to defend the validity of a measure that they brought forward.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Have we ever granted standing to proponents of ballot initiatives?

MR. COOPER: No, Your Honor, the Court has not done that. But the Court has never had before it a clear expression from a unanimous State’s high court that –

JUSTICE KAGAN: — could — could the State assign to any citizen the rights to defend a judgment of this kind?

MR. COOPER: Justice Kagan, that would be a — a very tough question. It’s — it’s by no means the question before the Court, because — because it isn’t any citizen, it’s — it is the — it is the official proponents that have a specific and — and carefully detailed –

JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, I just — if you would on the hypothetical: Could a State just assign to
anybody the ability to do this?

MR. COOPER: Your Honor, I think it very well might. It very well might be able to decide that any citizen could step forward and represent the interests of the State and the people in that State…

JUSTICE KENNEDY: But you’re — you’re doing so in a — in a case where the opinion is very narrow. Basically that once the State goes halfway, it has to go all the way or 70 percent of the way, and you’re doing so in a case where there’s a substantial question on — on standing. I just wonder if — if the case was properly granted.

Defining Marriage

Amar: When it comes to the merits, I think there was more of a full-throated rejection of the plaintiffs’ challenge to Prop. 8 by the conservative justices, especially Justice Scalia, than there was a full-throated embrace of a national right to same sex-marriage by the liberals.

It’s true that Justice Kagan asked (Yes on 8 Attorney) Chuck Cooper some difficult questions about regulation of people who are over 55 years of age and how does that relate to procreation, etc. But I didn’t hear the liberals kind of explain a national equal protection right, which they may embrace, but they didn’t use oral argument to put it out there the way Justice Scalia and other conservative justices kind of belittled the claim brought by the plaintiffs.

One of the things the arguments show — this procreation defense of bans on same-sex marriage — doesn’t really work that easily. It lends itself to a lot of easy, hypothetical rejoinders. And I think that the conservative justices who think that Prop. 8 is appropriate for the people of California to have passed, they in their questions, recast the issue focusing not just narrowly on procreation, but on caution more generally.

JUSTICE BREYER: Am I not clear? Look, you said that the problem is marriage; that it is an institution that furthers procreation.

MR. COOPER: Yes, Your Honor.

JUSTICE BREYER: And the reason there was adoption, but that doesn’t apply to California. So imagine I wall off California and I’m looking just there, where you say that doesn’t apply. Now, what happens to your argument about the institution of marriage as a tool towards procreation? Given the fact that, in California, too, couples that aren’t gay but can’t have children get married all the time.

MR. COOPER: Yes, Your Honor. The concern is that redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes, and it will refocus, refocus the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage away from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults, of adult couples. Suppose, in turn –

JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, suppose a State said, Mr. Cooper, suppose a State said that, Because we think that the focus of marriage really should be on procreation, we are not going to give marriage licenses anymore to any couple where both people are over the age of 55. Would that be constitutional?

MR. COOPER: No, Your Honor, it would not be constitutional.

JUSTICE KAGAN: Because that’s the same State interest, I would think, you know. If you are over the age of 55, you don’t help us serve the Government’s interest in regulating procreation through marriage. So why is that different?

MR. COOPER: Your Honor, even with respect to couples over the age of 55, it is very rare that both couples — both parties to the couple are infertile, and the traditional –

- Laughter -

Is Marriage a Fundamental Right?

Amar: Loving was a 1967 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage. It kept coming up because the challengers to Prop. 8 have really evoked Loving and the interracial marriage setting as an analogy: That just as it was legitimate for the court to tell states that they could not ban marriages between races, so, too, it’s appropriate to tell states that they cannot ban marriages between gays and lesbians.

The people who oppose the challenge, the defenders of Prop. 8, Chuck Cooper, they really think that Loving is more a case about race than it was about marriage. They also would note that in 1967, when the Supreme Court decided Loving, there were only about a dozen or so states that continued to prohibit interracial marriage. Whereas 40 states or so continue to prohibit same-sex marriage. So the backdrop against which the Supreme Court nationalized a right to interracial marriage in 1967 might be considered different than today’s backdrop. Something the court kind of hinted at a number of times when they talked about whether this issue should percolate a little in the states before the Supreme Court weighs in, in a definitive fashion.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Same-sex couples have every other right, it’s just about the label.

MR. OLSON: The label “marriage” means something. Even our opponents –

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: If you tell a child that somebody has to be their friend, I suppose you can force the child to say, this is my friend, but it changes the definition of what it means to be a friend. And that’s it seems to me what the — what supporters of Proposition 8 are saying here. You’re — all you’re interested in is the label and you insist on changing the definition of the label.

MR. OLSON: It is like you were to say you can vote, you can travel, but you may not be a citizen. There are certain labels in this country that are very, very critical. You could have said in the Loving case, what — you can’t get married, but you can have an interracial union. Everyone would know that that was wrong, that the — marriage has a status, recognition, support, and you — if you read the test, you know –

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: How do we know — how do we know that that’s the reason, or a necessary part of the reason, that we’ve recognized marriage as a fundamental right? That’s — you’ve emphasized that and you’ve said, well, it’s because of the emotional commitment. Maybe it is the procreative aspect that makes it a fundamental right.

Why Now?

Amar: I think the best defense of Prop. 8, if there is a good defense, is that states have the right to be cautious when they’re tampering with an institution that’s 2,000 or more years old. Justice Kennedy talked about how long marriage has remained the way it is. Justice Alito said, you know, same sex-marriage is a newer institution than cell phones or the Internet, and you’re telling us we have to nationalize it right now?

JUSTICE ALITO: You want us to assess the effects of same-sex marriage, the potential effects on — of same-sex marriage, the potential — the effects of Proposition 8. But what is your response to the argument which has already been mentioned about the need to be cautious in light of the newness of the — the concept of — of same-sex marriage. The one thing that the parties in this case seem to agree on is that marriage is very important. It’s thought to be a fundamental building block of society and its preservation essential for the preservation of society. Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new. I think it was first adopted in The Netherlands in 2000. So there isn’t a lot of data about its effect. And it may turn out to be a — a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing, as the supporters of Proposition 8 apparently believe. But you want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cell phones or the Internet? I mean we — we are not — we do not have the ability to see the future. On a question like that, of such fundamental importance, why should it not be left for the people, either acting through initiatives and referendums or through their elected public officials?

When Did Same-Sex Marriage Become Illegal?

Amar: The rhetorical point Justice Scalia is trying to make is that if we would say that it did not violate the Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage 50 years ago, and it does so today, isn’t it odd that the meaning of the Constitution, whose words haven’t changed since 1868, would evolve?

(Scalia) is what we call an originalist and textualist. He wants to interpret the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by reference to what it meant in 1868. Not by reference to modern notions of social meaning and social science.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Was it always unconstitutional?

MR. OLSON: It was constitutional when we — as a culture determined that sexual orientation is a characteristic of individuals that they cannot control, and that that –

JUSTICE SCALIA: I see. When did that happen? When did that happen?

MR. OLSON: There’s no specific date in time. This is an evolutionary cycle.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Well, how am I supposed to know how to decide a case, then –

MR. OLSON: Because the case that’s before you –

JUSTICE SCALIA: — if you can’t give me a date when the Constitution changes?

MR. OLSON: — in — the case that’s before you today, California decided — the citizens of California decided, after the California Supreme Court decided that individuals had a right to get married irrespective of their sexual orientation in California, and then the Californians decided in Proposition 8, wait a minute, we don’t want those people to be able to get married.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: So — so your case — your case would be different if Proposition 8 was enacted into law prior to the California Supreme Court decision?

MR. OLSON: I would make — I would make the — also would make the — that distinguishes it in one respect. But also — also — I would also make the argument, Mr. Chief Justice, that we are — this — marriage is a fundamental right and we are making a classification based upon a status of individuals, which this Court has repeatedly decided that gays and lesbians are defined by their status. There is no question about that.

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About the Author ()

Lisa Pickoff-White is KQED's Senior Interactive News Producer. Her work has been honored with awards from the Online News Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Society of Professional Journalists and SXSW Interactive. Lisa specializes in visual journalism, including photography and data. Reach Lisa Pickoff-White at lpickoffwhite@kqed.org.

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