In this posting I explore Justice Roberts’ dissent in the same sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges. I will deal with the dissents of Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas in a third and last installment of posts on this decision. I want to deal with Justice Roberts individually because I find his dissent to be more interesting and much more reasoned than the dissents of Scalia and Thomas.
The opening of Justice Roberts’ dissent is quite characteristic of the tone and balance that I feel he uses throughout the entire dissent. The dissent opens with the following:
“Petitioners make strong arguments rooted in social policy and considerations of fairness. They contend that same-sex couples should be allowed to affirm their love and commitment through marriage, just like opposite-sex couples. That position has undeniable appeal.”
It is an opening paragraph that when I read it seemed to me to be an attempt to create a distance between homophobia and his argument that there is no Constitutional right to same sex marriage. The message seems to be that, while allowing same sex marriage may seem to be the right thing to do, what is right is not appropriate for the Court to consider. He immediately dismisses the arguments of fairness by stating:
“Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us.”
He returns to this concept of judicial restraint several times in the opinion with statements such as:
“It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law.
Justice Roberts argues that establishing the definition of marriage is an issue relegated to the States that should be resolved through the ballot and legislative process. While he concedes that the historical precedents of the Court view marriage as a fundamental right, he would have the scope of that right be decided at the state level. What he doesn’t do though, which is considered by the majority opinion, is consider the Constitutional ramifications of allowing marriage to be defined at the State level. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by a result where marriages are recognized in one state, but not another. Although he returns to the argument time and time again in his long and largely repetitive dissent, he never addresses how under his paradigm one reconciles the fundamental inequality that arises. Roberts either does not seem to notice, or is not bothered by, an outcome where for opposite sex couples, marriage is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution that is beyond the reach of voters or the legislature. Whereas for same sex couples marriage would only exist as a matter of statutory law, subject to changes by the voters and legislature, and without Constitutional protection.
Justice Roberts conducts an analysis of marriage and its historical roots. In my opinion this is probably the weakest part of his dissent. His examination of marriage is incredibly limited in scope. Regarding the reason for marriage’s existence he writes:
“It arose in the nature of things to meet a vital need: ensuring that children are conceived by a mother and father committed to raising them in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”
Justice Roberts never explores the idea of marriage beyond what he claims is its biological roots. He claims that this is the “singular understanding of marriage” throughout American history. He spends quite a bit of time over several pages making the argument that marriage is tied to procreation. He concludes this discussion of traditional marriage by conceding that the majority is correct that marriage has changed over time, but limits this concession by stating that the “core meaning” has not changed.
He never addresses the fact that we don’t limit marriage to only those who can procreate, or that recognition of marriage carries with it many benefits and privileges not associated with procreating such as who would be appointed as a natural guardian of an incapacitated spouse, intestate property distribution, etc. His writing completely ignores the reality that many couples marry with no intention of ever having children and that there is no less protection given to childless marriages.
When Justice Roberts addresses the Equal Protection and Due Process protections that underlie the majority decision he begins by again returning to the judicial restraint argument:
“Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.”
It is from this point that his dissent starts to get a little weird. He looks to the Dred Scott decision as a justification for severely limited substantive due process (Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses) in which the Supreme Court struck down the Congressionally enacted Missouri Compromise on the basis that it resulted in a slaveholder loosing his property interest in a slave when they crossed into a non-slave state. He then basically claims that it was the Dred Scott decision that led to the Civil War and that the reasoning behind majority decision is analogous to Dred Scott.
Here’s what’s weird about this. The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses contained in 14th Amendment that were relied upon by the majority in deciding the issue of same sex marriage are post-Civil war amendments. They did not exist in the Constitution when Dred Scott was decided. He declares that Dred Scott that was overruled by the Civil War, which is an argument that I’ve never heard anyone make in any context.
He accuses the majority of readopting the due process analysis long disfavored from the Lochner opinion, which involved the Court investigating whether or not a particular law was justified where a liberty interest is involved. In other words, the Supreme Court was acting to review the wisdom of a law rather than the Constitutionality of a law. All of this is argued in support of the overall theme of his dissent in which is he sees the decision as judicial activism.
“The doctrine that . . . due process authorizes courts to hold laws unconstitutional when they believe the legislature has acted unwisely,” we later explained, “has long since been discarded. We have returned to the original constitutional proposition that courts do not substitute their social and economic beliefs for the judgment of legislative bodies, who are elected to pass laws.”
One challenge that Justice Roberts faces in justifying his dissent is that the majority decision points to the numerous prior decisions holding that marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be restricted by the State without justification. Justice Roberts, in what appears to me to be a weak argument, tries to get around this by stating that none of those cases involved a change in the “core definition” of marriage.
In many ways, his entire argument comes to down to whether or not the state laws in question are viewed as a “definition” of marriage or a “restriction” on marriage. Justice Roberts appears to be with the majority when it comes to recognizing that the states face a high burden when justifying a restriction on the right of marriage. However, he believes that they’re free to do as they see fit when it comes to the “definition” of marriage. This is clearly articulated when, in distinguishing the right to marry cases, he writes:
“In short, the “right to marry” cases stand for the important but limited proposition that particular restrictions on access to marriage as traditionally defined violate due process. These precedents say nothing at all about a right to make a State change its definition of marriage, which is the right petitioners actually seek here.”
Numerous times returns to beating the long dead horse of Lochner in what is a lot of repetitive language covering arguments made earlier in the dissent. However, when he finally tires of arguing Lochner, he actually moves into what I think is the most interesting part of his dissent in which he asks the question:
“One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people. “
In this portion of the dissent, I think he’s actually onto something. He points out that there is a strong historical basis for plural marriage and that the reasoning adopted by the majority could equally apply to a person seeking plural marriage. I suspect that he’s asking this question for the purpose of raising fears of the majority decision, but I do think it’s an accurate insight into the potential impact of the holding. Interestingly, he does leave himself an exit strategy should the issue of plural marriage come before the Court by stating: “there may well be relevant differences that compel different legal analysis.”
Justice Roberts closes the decision with several pages of what can best be described as “the sky is falling” rhetoric. He claims that today’s decision will undermine the respect for, and authority of, the Court. He even does so far as to claim that the petitioners in the case have actually lost in the long run:
“however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause. And they lose this just when the winds of change were freshening at their backs.”
After accusing the majority of sullying the names of people opposed to same sex marriages, Justice Roberts closes with what I feel comes across as a very sarcastic ending:
If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it. “
I’m honestly disappointed that he decided to end with such a spiteful statement. Although I’m not persuaded by his arguments, he raises what I feel are some interesting questions and concerns. However, I find the issues he raises lose their dignity when coupled with his closing. Is Justice Roberts a sore loser, or someone who truly sees the role of the Court as so limited that it must ignore emerging concepts of justice at the expense of honoring tradition? I don’t know. Numerous times in the decision he explains that the outcome is not of concern to the Court because that is a policy consideration for the legislature. While I respect the idea of judicial restraint, I’m not convinced that our founders envisioned our Judicial branch to be little more than a potted plant that is intellectually impotent in the face of injustice. It is the refusal of the Court to act in the face of injustice through decisions such as Dred Scott, Plessy (upholding separate but equal), and Korematsu (upholding internment of Americans of Japanese descent) that have brought shame upon the Court. I do think Justice Roberts’ concerns about short-circuiting the democratic process are of legitimate concern whenever a case such as this is before the Court. However, I don’t feel that he’s even begun to adequately distinguish a law that “defines” marriage as only applying to certain people from a law that “restricts” marriage in a way that violates the Constitution. I suspect, that if this could have been done, this case would have been decided differently.