Friday, November 30, 2012
In an 41 page opinion and order in Sevick v. Sandoval, United States District Judge Robert Jones has rejected an equal protection challenge to Nevada's statutory scheme disallowing same-sex marriage.
The judge relied upon Baker v. Nelson, 409 U.S. 810 (1972), in which the United States Supreme Court summarily dismissed an equal protection challenge to the Minnesota statutory marital scheme's exclusion of same-sex couples. While stating that the "present challenge is in the main a garden-variety equal protection challenge precluded by Baker," the judge was undoubtedly aware of Baker's problematic status (a case to be relegated to the dustbin of precedent, perhaps), and provided a full analysis, "so that the Court of Appeals need not remand for further proceedings should it rule that Baker does not control or does not control as broadly as the Court finds."
The judge's well-structured analysis begins with a discussion of the classification, considering the notion that the Nevada scheme makes no classification at all, as well as the notion that the scheme makes a gender classification, but settling for the widely accepted principle that the scheme makes a sexual orientation classification.
In determining the level of scrutiny to be applied, Judge Jones decides in favor of rational basis, noting his disagreement with the Second Circuit in Windsor involving DOMA. Supporting this conclusion, Judge Jones highlights the factor of political powerlessless and its relationship with the judicial role in a democracy. For example, Jones writes that "Any minority group can reasonably argue that its political power is less than it might be were the group either not a minority or more popular. That is simply an inherent aspect of democracy." Additionally, "Gross movements by the judiciary with respect to democratic processes can cause an awkward unbalancing of powers in a Madisonian constitutional democracy."
Moreover, Judge Jones rejects the heightened rational basis of Romer v. Evans and the Ninth Circuit precedent of Perry v. Brown, involving California's Proposition 8, because there is no animus in the Nevada scheme:
Because there has never been a right to same-sex marriage in Nevada, Romer and Perry are inapplicable here as to NRS section 122.020. That section of the NRS removed no preexisting right and effected no change whatsoever to the legal status of homosexuals when adopted by the Nevada Territorial Legislature in 1861. See Nev. Comp. Laws § 196 § 2, at 65 (1861–1873).
On this lowest standard of rational basis, the challenger must negate every conceivable basis - - - an exceedingly, if not impossible task, and Judge Jones not surprisingly finds that the challengers fail to meet their heavy burden. The "protection of the traditional basis for marriage," is a legitimate one for Judge Jones, and the exclusion of same-sex couples is rationally related to that interest. This is true even though Nevada has provided for a domestic partnership scheme for same-sex couples.
As the United States Supreme Court considers whether or not to decide the issue of same-sex marriage, either in the Proposition 8 posture of Perry v. Brown or one of the DOMA postures such as the Second Circuit case or First Circuit case - - - all of which invalidated bans on same-sex marriage - - - Judge Jones' opinion demonstrates that the constitutional issue of same-sex marriage remains a contested one, even in a state with otherwise permissive marital regulations.
[image "Little white chapel" in Las Vegas, Nevada, via]