Archive for the ‘domestic partnerships’ Category

Some Thoughts on Today’s Oral Argument in the Prop 8 Appeal

December 6th, 2010 3 comments

Earlier today, I live-blogged the argument to a Ninth Circuit panel in Perry v. Schwarzenegger.

Now, with dinner and a ridiculously difficult swim behind me, and the kids in bed, here are some observations about what I heard (and saw in the judges’ faces) during the argument:

(1) The court seemed much more interested in the unique facts of California’s marriage equality/Prop 8 situation than in reaching a broad decision about whether the U.S. Constitution confers a right on same-sex couples to marry. Judges Hawkins and Reinhardt, especially, kept encouraging Ted Olson to take a big — but incomplete — victory, declaring Prop 8 to be unconstitutional, but avoiding the deeper question of whether the state can ever deprive its gay and lesbian citizens of the right to marry.

Here’s the path to doing so: In the 1996 Supreme Court case, Romer v. Evans, the Court struck down an amendment to the state’s constitution that effectively walled gays and lesbians off from any legal redress for discrimination. As Justice Ginsburg pointedly noted during argument, under the state’s argument, any LGBT state resident could be denied the right to borrow a book from the public library just because of sexual orientation, and would have no redress. This, the Court said, no state may do. It’s hard to find an action that strikes more directly at the heart of the equality principle, and Romer famously began with a quote from Justice Harlan’s eloquent dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson: “The Constitution neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”

Reinhardt and Hawkins made ample use of Romer, strongly suggesting that Prop 8, by taking away a right that the state’s supreme court had already deemed fundamental (earlier that same year, 2008), created for LGBT citizens a second-class standing, by the name “domestic partnership.” And given that the domestic partnership confers all the rights of marriage but withholds the name, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the enactment is motivated by anything other than animus towards gay and lesbian couples.

There’s something paradoxical about this, of course (as I’ve noted in a law review article, The Short, Puzzling(?) Life of the Civil Union) — a state, such as California, that’s gone all the way up to marriage for gays and lesbians while withholding the word is, under this approach, more vulnerable to challenge than a state like, say, Florida, that has no state-wide protection for gays and lesbians. Indeed, Charles Cooper (attorney for the Prop 8 proponents) called this kind of analysis “perverse.” But it might carry the day, if the court finds that at least one of the Prop 8 defenders before it has standing. (See (3), below.)

(2) None of the substantive arguments in favor of Prop 8 appeared to have much traction with the court, except with Judge Smith. I’m not oversimplifying to say that the argument was really about procreation — particularly, accidental procreation — and little else. That’s all they had once the court wouldn’t stand for the argument that “the people” should get to decide to continue restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples because — well, because marriage has so far been restricted to opposite-sex couples.

(3) I wouldn’t be completely surprised if the court finds that the Prop 8 proponents have no standing; that’s not what I’m expecting, but it could happen. The questions on standing were pointed, withering, and perhaps decisive. I’ll leave further analysis of this point to those few experts in procedural constitutional law who have thoroughly digested the case law on this issue. (Some good ones are linked here.)1

(4) There’s much, much more to come. The court even suggested that the case might for a time be diverted to the California Supreme Court to resolve an issue central to standing. Whether or not that happens, there will still be an appeal by the losing side to the full Ninth Circuit (called an en banc hearing), a likely appeal to, and decision by, the U.S. Supreme Court, and then even a remand (possibly) to the trial court — but not to Judge Walker, who is about to retire.


All things considered, I think the court would be wise to limit its ruling to the unique facts and circumstances of Prop 8 (and here I’m assuming that the case will survive the appeal). Here’s why:

Justice Kennedy, who holds the balance of power, would be much likelier to agree with a more cabined holding. And setting the case in the context of Romer would appeal to him; after all, he wrote it.

If the Supreme Court does throw out Prop 8 — without deciding the broader question of marriage equality, once and for all (or as “once and for all” as the Court gets) — then the gigantic, bellwether state of California will soon be issuing millions of marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples (as well as eliminating needless complications that have tied courts up when dealing with transgendered folks) and it will become clearer, faster that the Earth didn’t spin off its axis. More states would then follow, more quickly, and before long the issue will become so clear — if not plain dumb, a waste of time and energy for all but the few most zealous oppositionists — that the Supreme Court would face little to no backlash in calling all committed, loving couples into the constitutional embrace of full marriage equality.

  1. Note: This link wasn’t working; now, it should be. Sorry for the glitch.

Reading the Maine Marriage Equality Setback

November 4th, 2009 No comments

Let’s face it; this loss in Maine is tough to swallow. Here’s a comment from a despondent reader:

I know after some rest I’ll even out and get back to the business of living, but right now I feel very done with the ballot box, and donating, and phone-banking, and talking myself blue in the face, etc. I honestly don’t feel its proper to submit the rights of a minority to a popular vote and I’m not up for any further indignities at this time. I’m sure I’ll come around and get on with it like everyone else, but right now … I don’t know.

It’s easy to feel this way, especially after the heady victories over the past year throughout New England and in Iowa. There’s a brick wall that still hasn’t been battered down: When voters have been asked to weigh in on marriage equality, they consistently vote against us. We’d likely win in a state like Vermont, and maybe in a few other places, but we’re not there yet in most places — even, as we saw, in California or Maine. Nor is the Maine story as “spinnable” in our favor as the California narrative, because this time the equality forces outspent their opponents, and did the very kind of door-to-door campaigning that was supposed to result in victory. It’s tempting to join the reader’s pessimistic appraisal, and ask:  “What’s left to try”?

It’s fair enough to feel that way on the day after such a devastating loss. But two things seem worth saying. First, we should acknowledge that there is indeed something wrong with putting minority rights up to a vote by the majority. But of course the constitutional or, in Maine, referendum, process in many states allows just this sort of result. Judicial challenges, as we’ve seen, are risky, too. One day (not soon) the U.S. Supreme Court may put an end to this state-by-state denial of basic equality, but for now, we’re stuck with the political process. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing, as it forces us (or should) to continue to engage our neighbors about our lives, and their value.

Second, we’re pushing closer and closer to that 50% threshold. It seems right now that we’re in the 47-48% range in more socially progressive states, so we’ve not far to go. And when the (in this sense) toxic word “marriage” is taken out of the equation, we’ve now cleared that majority hurdle: It looks as though the Washington full domestic partnership ordinance will stand. This result mirrors national polls, which now consistently show a majority in favor of at least marriage-in-all but name status for same-sex couples. It’s literally the word “marriage” — and its manifold, deeply embedded religious and cultural significance for many (including same-sex couples, of course) — that keeps the wall standing.

But let’s keep this in mind: In 2009, we’re already there, in many places, on equality in all-but-name. In a few states, we’ve even crossed the barrier on marriage. In several others, we’re close. Now think about where we were a decade ago. From that perspective, our progress has been nothing short of astonishing.

As a father with two young kids, I’m determined that they grow up in a place where their family is valued. As a citizen married in all but law to my spouse, I demand equality. Nothing else will, or should, placate us. I still believe — I still know — that we will get there, and soon.

Obama’s (Mini) Down Payment on Gay Rights: Federal Domestic Partner Benefits

June 17th, 2009 No comments

The issue of causation confounds philosophers and scientists alike, but allow me to identify one instance of clear cause-and-effect that few would dispute: The furor over the DOJ’s filing of the motion to dismiss in the DOMA case — not to mention the hemorrhaging of financial support for the upcoming DNC fund-raiser — led directly to President Obama’s actions tonight. Here’s what happened:

The actual legal step is teensy. Federal employees get a few crummy benefits; not the truly valuable stuff like health care or retirement benefits. Obama barely mentions the benefits  he’s able to confer with the stroke of a pen, because they’re mostly peanuts. (Not to those directly affected, though. During Equality Forum, I spoke to Michael Guest, the moderator of a panel on LGBT Rights and Challenges in Russia. Guest is the former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, and he discussed his constant frustration with how his same-sex spouse couldn’t do any of the simple  things that spouses of opposite-sex couples could, including attending basic learning  sessions on “do’s and  “don’t’s” for spouses living in other countries. My  conversation with Guest is worth its own post; maybe someday soon….)

But Obama’s action wasn’t about these benefits; they were just the handiest vehicle for his now desperately needed effort to calm the LGBT community. There were two ways for him to have done so: He could have delivered a major, sweeping  speech on gay rights, with a mea culpa for the vilified DOJ brief (for which he’s ultimately accountable). In my fantasy world, I  still hope that he might deliver such a speech, and a few posts ago, I took the liberty of writing one for him.  The model for that is the “race speech” he gave last year here in Philadelphia.

This brief signing ceremony cum photo op was the alternative. It wasn’t a grand “gay rights” speech, focusing instead on DOMA — not coincidentally, the act that was the subject of the recent firestorm — and on the smaller steps, like the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, that could be taken leading up to DOMA’s repeal.

Given its focus on DOMA, as a short speech it was good. He neither apologized for nor explained the DOJ brief, but he did acknowledge that he hadn’t done anything yet: “Among the steps we have not taken is repeal of DOMA.” He then reminded us that, yes, he still supports repealing a statute that is “discriminatory” and “interferes with states’ rights.”

The “states’ rights” reason is important to the legal ear. Recall that DOMA does two things: It allows states to refuse recognition of sister states’ same-sex marriages, and denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples even if validly married in their home states. The DOJ’s argument in defense of the second provision was the one that drew all of the outrage, arguing, as it did, that the government shouldn’t spend federal tax money on the “novelty item”  that is same-sex marriage, and (incredibly) that same-sex couples weren’t being discriminated against by being excluded from federal benefits. Tonight, Obama effectively stepped back from these arguments by saying that DOMA should  be repealed precisely because it doesn’t respect a state’s decision to confer the status of marriage on same-sex couples. Not bad, although likely lost on non-lawyers (unless you are lucky enough to be reading this!)

Beyond DOMA, his rhetoric was more general, and — happily! — more reminiscent of his campaign’s. There’s “more work to do to ensure that government treats all of its citizens equally.” He’s committed to fighting “injustice and intolerance in all its forms to bring about that more perfect union.” There, he consciously echoed the race speech, which began with this quote from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We  the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” (The speech also ended with the idea of “perfecting” that union.)

And then, in further answer to the question: “What the hell are you doing on LGBT issues?”, he committed his administration to working “tirelessly” to secure the repeal of DOMA.

Will this action succeed in quelling the outrage? It’s impossible to tell at this point. For once, I’ve purposely refrained from reading other blogs before posting this, because I wanted to voice my own first reaction, unaffected by the cacophony that’s surely out there. My guess is that it buys him a little time — not much — to actually start working on the signature LGBT issues of his campaign. If DOMA gets moved to the front of the pack (ahead of supposedly easier sells, like hate crimes and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), that would be real progress.

But the honeymoon is over.

Dignity: Who Has It, and Why Do We Care (or, Dignity, Schmignity?)

May 11th, 2009 No comments

How much would I care about my dignity if no else had any, either?

The question scarcely makes any sense, because dignity is valued only in relation to others, of course. It’s closely related to “esteem,” a regard in which most of us want to be held; I’d rather be the “estimable me” than not.

The matter of dignity came to mind earlier today when reading an account of yet another marriage equality update, this one at the New York City Bar late last week.  (H/t Michael Ginsborg) Towards the end of the program, Katherine Franke, a Columbia law professor, was sounding a cautionary note about the amount of time and effort devoted to the issue. One problem with this “marriage-equality-eats-through-everything” approach is that it runs the substantial risk of marking for inferior treatment other forms of family. That’s right, and as Nancy Polikoff, in particular, has eloquently argued, we need to “value all families,” however defined, and to create structures that respond to people’s real needs. (BTW, here is her analysis of what’s going on in D.C., complete with discussion of parts of related District laws that “value all families.”)

To Franke, the idea that marriage “ennobles and enriches human life” is limiting: “[T]o cloak marriage in this kind of teleological frame that all of us as adults should hope and aspire to obtain, communicates something that I think violates the movement that I joined many, many years ago.” Perhaps we can fuse Polikoff’s insights to Franke’s caution to state that marriage is just one of many ways to achieve one’s own authenticity, and that the continued trumpeting of “all marriage, all the time” risks drowning out that basic insight.

Then, though, Franke said something else that seemed to me just….wrong. She expressed a strong preference for marriage equality decisions that focus on equality, finding the focus on “dignity” that comes with fundamental rights analysis to be troubling. She cited the California and Massachusetts decisions in making her point. What she’s missing, though, is that both courts expressly connected fundamental rights and equality. This connection especially permeates In Re Marriage Cases, the California decision.

This isn’t the place to get into an extended discussion of the text, but a few passages illustrate the point. For example: “one of the core elements embodied in the state constitutional right to marry is the right of an individual and a couple to have their own official family relationship accorded respect and dignity equal to that accorded the family relationship of other couples.” (183 P.3d at 444.)

Recall that the California Supreme Court was making its decision in a state that already had a domestic partnership law that conferred substantially the same benefits on same-sex couples as marriage does on opposite-sex couples. So, “in the present context, affording same-sex couples access only to the separate institution of domestic partnership, and denying such couples access to the established institution of marriage, properly must be viewed as impinging upon the right of those couples to have their family relationship accorded respect and dignity equal to that accorded the family relationship of opposite-sex couples.” (Id. at 445.) The court went on to remind us that this thoroughly discredited idea that “separate is equal” has been tried, and rejected, in the case of race and gender.

Perhaps Franke was simply making the point that marriage equality is just the first step in a more comprehensive assessment of legal fairness and social significance, and her point was lost in translation from panel to report. In any case, it’s worth remembering that courts can and do only address the controversy before them; in so doing, they’re right to insist that likes be treated as likes, and to fuse the related pillars of equality and basic rights.

You’ve got dignity. Where’s mine? And then, what about everyone else?