Today, the Court upheld the equal liberty and dignity of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation with its ruling in United States v. Windsor. This represents a major victory for gay rights, of course, but more broadly vindicates a robust view of individual liberty as protected by the Constitution. It should be axiomatic that the federal government has to treat all people equally, that it has to accept the several states’ sovereign laws on marriage (and many other subjects), and today there were five votes at the Supreme Court for that proposition.
It is now clear that there was simply no valid reason to uphold DOMA Section 3, no reason to deny the equal protection of more than 1,000 federal laws. As Justice Kennedy wrote for the unified majority, “the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage.”
This is exactly the result we were hoping for.
The Court’s ruling in the Prop 8 case is weird, frustrating, and leaves great uncertainty in both the law and practical effect. It’s also wrong: to say that private parties can’t step in to defend a law when the state government declines to is to allow the executive to erase properly enacted laws and even state constitutional amendments simply by not defending them in court.
For practical purposes, those of us who support marriage equality can be heartened that Prop 8 has been struck down – but there will still be extensive litigation over whether California can only issue marriage licenses to the two couples who were the plaintiffs in Perry, to everyone in the federal district where the lawsuit originated, or in the entire state. The Supreme Court may have thought it was putting off the difficult issues for another day, but it may simply have complicated matters. While clothed in complicated, technical language, and surrounded by the unusual atmospherics of gay marriage, this ruling boils down to the Court’s shying away from the full implications of its other ruling today.
In short, Perry was a frustrating decision but doesn’t detract from the significant constitutional win in Windsor.