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

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?

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