Monday, July 28, 2014

Fourth Circuit: Virginia's Same-Sex Marriage Ban is Unconstitutional

Affirming the federal district judge's decision in February, a panel of the Fourth Circuit in a divided opinion has held in Bostic v. Schaefer that Virginia's same-sex marriage prohibitions are unconstitutional.

The majority opinion, authored by Judge Henry Floyd and joined by Judge Roger Gregory, notably finds marriage to be a fundamental right that encompasses same-sex marriage and applies strict scrutiny. 

Fourth Circuit map
The court's conclusion is that the "Virginia Marriage Laws" (including statutes and a state constitutional amendment)

violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the extent that they prevent same-sex couples from marrying and prohibit Virginia from recognizing same-sex couples’ lawful out-of-state marriages.

At various times, the court blends Due Process and Equal Protection analysis and precedent, but both spring from its conclusion that "marriage" is a fundamental right and that "marriage" includes same-sex marriage.    After discussing Loving v. Virginia, Zablocki v. Redhail, and Turner v. Safley, the court notes:

These cases do not define the rights in question as “the right to interracial marriage,” “the right of people owing child support to marry,” and “the right of prison inmates to marry.” Instead, they speak of a broad right to marry that is not circumscribed based on the characteristics of the individuals seeking to exercise that right. The Supreme Court’s unwillingness to constrain the right to marry to certain subspecies of marriage meshes with its conclusion that the right to marry is a matter of “freedom of choice,” Zablocki, 434 U.S. at 387, that “resides with the individual,” Loving, 388 U.S. at 12. If courts limited the right to marry to certain couplings, they would effectively create a list of legally preferred spouses, rendering the choice of whom to marry a hollow choice indeed.

The court's use of "couplings" implicitly addresses a portion of the oft-called slippery slope argument that is raised by Judge Paul Niemeyer in his dissent: what would prevent this rationale from extending to polygamy?  The dissent also invokes incest, accusing the majority of "dictionary jurisprudence" when it (re)defines marriage to include same-sex marriage.  But of course, the definitional conundrum plagues the dissent as well, when it argues that certain qualities are "foundational" to marriage and other qualities are "irrelevant."  For the dissent, this is the "biological link between procreation and marriage," a link that does exist in the polygamous and incestuous marriages the dissent disapproves.

For the majority, after finding marriage a fundamental right deserving of strict scrutiny, the five governmental interests argued as supporting the marriage laws not surprisingly fail to pass constitutional muster:

  • (1) Virginia’s federalism-based interest in maintaining control over the definition of marriage within its borders,
  • (2) the history and tradition of opposite-sex marriage,
  • (3) protecting the institution of marriage,
  • (4) encouraging responsible procreation, and
  • (5) promoting the optimal childrearing environment.

 More surprising is that although these interests are raised by the parties the court calls the  "Proponents" of the Virginia marriage laws, there is little in the court's opinion that analyzes their standing to appeal.  The court does analyze the standing of the plaintiffs to sue the defendants George Schaefer III (in his official capacity as Clerk of Court for Norfolk Circuit Court) and Janet Rainey (in her official capacity as State Registrar of Vital Records).  And since these parties were indeed defendants, there may be little need for an extensive analysis of appellate standing as was necessary in the same-sex marriage cases decided by the United States Supreme Court in June 2013. Nevertheless, recall that the (new) Virginia Attorney General had decided during the district court litigation that the Virginia laws were unconstitutional and filed a notice of change of position; however the laws continued to be enforced. 

The Fourth Circuit thus joins the Tenth Circuit in holding that a state's same-sex marriage ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment.   While these circuit court opinions are divided, the dozen or so federal district judges who have considered the issue have been unanimous in reaching the same conclusion.

 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/2014/07/fourth-circuit-virginias-same-sex-marriage-ban-is-unconstitutional-.html

Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law, Tenth Amendment | Permalink

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