Tuesday, March 26, 2013
The first of the two closely-watched same sex marriage cases to be argued before the United States this morning prompted much tweeting and predictions, as well as the promised early release of the audio by the Supreme Court itself.
As the oral arguments today made clear, at issue before the Court today in Hollingsworth v. Perry is the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, held unconstitutional by a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit in Perry v. Brown.
The Standing Issue:
The first question during oral argument was from Chief Justice Roberts and directed the attention of Hollingsworth's counsel, Charles Cooper, to the "jurisdictional" issue - - - the question of whether Hollingsworth has standing. Recall that the original challenge to Proposition 8 named Governor Schwarzenegger, and later substituted Governor Brown, as defendants, but both governors and the State of California refused to defend the constitutionality of the voter initiative. Recall also that the California Supreme Court had answered a certified query about the interests of proponents of a Proposition under California law, but today's the questions from the bench stressed Article III of the United States Constitution.
Roberts' query was repeated to Theodore Olsen, arguing for the challengers to Proposition 8, and to Solicitor General Verrilli, who noted that the United States, as amicus, did not have a "formal position" on standing, but essentially echoed Justice Ginsburg's first question to Cooper, regarding whether the proponents of Proposition 8 had any "propriety interest" in the law distinct from other California citizens once the law had been passed.
On the Merits:
A central query on the merits is the level of scrutiny under equal protection doctrine that should be applied. Justice Kennedy asked Cooper whether it could be treated as a gender classification and stated "It's a difficult question that I've been trying to wrestle with it." Yet Cooper's argument in many ways deflects the level of scrutiny inquiry and Justice Kagan expressed it thusly:
Mr. Cooper, could I just understand your argument. In reading the briefs, it seems as though your principal argument is that same-sex and opposite -- opposite-sex couples are not similarly situated because opposite-sex couples can procreate, same-sex couples cannot, and the State's principal interest in marriage is in regulating procreation. Is that basically correct?
Mr. Cooper agreed, and continued his argument, although Justice Scalia later tried to assist him:
JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Cooper, let me -- let me give you one -- one concrete thing. I don't know why you don't mention some concrete things. If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must -- you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there's - there's considerable disagreement among -- among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a -- in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not -- do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.
JUSTICE GINSBURG: California -- no, California does.
JUSTICE SCALIA: I don't think we know the answer to that. Do you know the answer to that, whether it -- whether it harms or helps the child?
But given that Justice Kennedy is widely viewed as the "swing vote," his comments deserve special attention. During Cooper's argument, Kennedy focused on the children of same-sex couples in California:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I -- I think there's - there's substantial -- that there's substance to the point that sociological information is new. We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more. On the other hand, there is an immediate legal injury or legal -- what could be a legal injury, and that's the voice of these children. There are some 40,000 children in California, according to the Red Brief, that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don't you think?
But at other times, Kennedy expressed other concerns. During Theordore Olsen's argument, Kennedy stated
JUSTICE KENNEDY: The problem -- the problem with the case is that you're really asking, particularly because of the sociological evidence you cite, for us to go into uncharted waters, and you can play with that metaphor, there's a wonderful destination, it is a cliff. Whatever that was.
And soon thereafter, in perhaps what could be a possible avoidance of all the issues,
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.
MR. OLSON: Oh, the case was certainly properly granted, Your Honor. I mean, there was a full trial of all of these issues. There was a 12-day trial, the judge insisted on evidence on all of these questions. This -- this is a -
JUSTICE KENNEDY: But that's not the issue the Ninth Circuit decided.
Could the Supreme Court merely declare that its grant of certiorari was "improvidently granted." It certainly wouldn't be the first time (or second) in very recent history. But in such a high profile case, it might further erode respect for the Court.