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How Full the Glass?

May 28th, 2009 No comments

As I explained in my two posts on the Prop 8 decision (analyzing the majority and dissenting opinions), I was disheartened by the court’s retreat from the principle of equality it had so eloquently championed in In Re Marriage Cases. Dale Carpenter, among others, agrees with me on at least this point.

Not everyone sees the glass so empty, though. A regular reader invited me to comment on this reaction, from one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers:

“Have been through the Prop 8 opinion and dissents. It appears that this is a blockbuster pro-gay-rights decision, restricting the effect of Prop 8 to the effect of removing the designation of gay civil unions as ‘marriage,’ but upholding all equal rights previously declared by the Court; and, suggesting that if the opponents of gay rights were to try to restrict equal union rights for gays by constitutional change, such change would be an Amendment (not a revision) and thus would be procedurally much more difficult to accomplish.

“Being able to lay claim to the word ‘marriage’ is important, but in all other respects this appears to be a spectacular decision in favor of gay rights.

“The decision leaves intact the holding of the Marriage Cases that gays have the fundamental ‘right to marry’ under the California constitution, now and in the future; but unless and until the California constitution is again amended to the contrary, such unions cannot be called marriage.

“Opponents of gay civil union rights could try another ballot initiative to expressly amend the constitution to ban such rights, but under the Court’s ruling, that proposed amendment would have to ban such rights expressly to be effective. The Court’s opinion makes clear that generally, amendments will not be interpreted to repeal constitutional rights by implication. The disfavor of repeal by implication is a longstanding legal principle, and the Court’s use of it here is a deft way of sending this issue back to the political process while upholding gay civil union rights for the foreseeable future.  Under this approach by the Court, opponents of gay civil union rights would have to word any future proposed amendments in such a way as to expressly ban gay civil union rights, and as a result, their ability to secure a sufficient number of petition signatures to get the amendment on the ballot, and then a majority of votes at the polls, will be all the more difficult.

“This is a very, very good day for the cause of gay marriage rights.”

I think the nub of our disagreement is this: I’m concerned about the constitutional implications of the court’s willingness to jettison the principle of true equality based on a simple majority vote (even though, it must be said, there is some precedential support for its holding), while this reader sees things from a practical standpoint: All of the rights are still intact, and any effort to further limit them will have to be carefully crafted. Moreover, the court will read any restrictions very strictly, and might even be unwilling to support further compromises to equality.

This reader is probably right as to most of the above. But as I’ve stated, I don’t know (nor can anyone) how far the court would be willing to go in supporting more far-reaching restrictions on the rights of the GLBT community, including revoking domestic partnership protections. Indeed, the majority expressly stated that it was not going to decide that issue. The court is doubtless hoping it won’t have to deal with a “parade of horribles,” but hope is hardly a sound principle for constitutional decision-making. In my view, the court’s actions revealed principle to be rhetoric, expendable at the first sign of trouble (read: the prospect that the justices might not be retained when they next appear on the ballot).

Now comes the federal lawsuit. More on this presently.