Monday, October 9, 2017
“It’s only a piece of paper.” This phrase can used to minimize the value of something. It has been leveled against court orders which can be, it is true, just a piece of paper unless they are enforced. However, it is the piece of paper that grants the right of enforcement, which is very significant indeed.
It would be easy to set forth a list of single pieces of paper that confer important rights. One such piece that would likely make that list is a birth certificate. And it is this particular paper that was the focus of a rather under-the-radar U. S. Supreme Court decision issued on the last day of the 2016-2017 term.
In Smith v. Pavan, the Court, in a Per Curium opinion, reversed the Arkansas Supreme Court in a case that involved whether Arkansas could refuse to list a non-biological same-sex parent on a birth certificate. The state Supreme Court had held that the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges did not mandate that the State of Arkansas place both same-sex parents on their child’s birth certificate. Specifically, the Court said that although the Obergefell decision mentioned birth certificates once, the reference was “related only to its observation that states conferred benefits on married couples.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in reversing, seized on language in Obergefell’s next paragraph which declared that by not being permitted to marry, “same-sex couples have been denied the constellation of benefits that the states have linked to marriage.” Citing the same language that the Arkansas Supreme Court had referenced, then dismissed—the mention of birth certificates as one of the “governmental rights, benefits, and responsibilities” that are conferred on married people-- the U.S. Supreme Court in Pavan wrote that the mention of birth certificates in Obergefell was “no accident” as several of the Obergefell plaintiffs had challenged a state’s refusal to list a same-sex parent on a birth certificate.
The Pavan per curiam opinion explained that its Obergefell case required that now-married same-sex couples could not be denied that “constellation of rights” attendant to marital status, thus refusing to countenance the Arkansas Supreme Court’s narrower view.
This case was issued on the last day of a fairly quotidian term, a term without many cases of import, intentionally planned for fear of a four-four split. Interestingly, by the time of this decision, the Court was again at its full nine-justice strength.
This “opinion of the court” included a dissent authored by Neil Gorsuch, the Court’s newest member. And as Supreme Court watchers began their tradition of assessing the upcoming term in late September and early October, the Pavan case has received a bit more attention for exactly that reason. Since one of the cases identified as a major case of the term, the colloquially named gay wedding cake case, is set to be argued on December 5th, people are looking to this dissent as one way of assessing Justice Gorsuch’s Supreme Court persona.
Regardless of what Pavan says about Justice Gorsuch, is important for what it tells us about what the Court meant in Obergefell. Pieces of paper are important; they confer rights, and obligation, and status.