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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?

More on Prop 8: Quixotic Fundamental Rights

March 5th, 2009 No comments

Breaking my vow to blog only once a day, I can’t resist adding a few comments to my earlier, live-blogging post.First, calling something a “fundamental right” is essentially meaningless if it can be taken away by simple majority rule. Justice George’s opinion for the majority in last May’s In re Marriage Cases ruling contained lofty pronouncements about the right of all people to marry someone of their choosing, and about the clear message in the legislative approach of granting the rights of marriage while withholding the label. If I’m right in my prediction about Justice George’s vote based on his questioning at oral argument, he’s willing to let the people abrogate these rights by a simple majority vote, blaming it on the constitutional initiative process.

(“Riddle me this, Batman: When is a fundamental right not worth a sou?” “When it’s established by the California Supreme Court.”)

The second point is closely related: The process for amending the constitution in California, and indeed the entire direct democracy idea, is just plain loony. I know I’ll regret saying this when Prop 8 is reversed, as I predict will happen within a few years, at most. But even when that happens, one doesn’t need to restrict oneself to Prop 8 to find myriad reasons for questioning this whole process. I looked at the raft of propositions on last November’s ballot and was struck by their range and complexity. Are the voters really equipped to vote a simple “up or down” on a complex statute? Legislators, fed by committees and countless experts, are barely competent to engage in this high degree of difficulty  exercise. Leave the amateurs out of it, please.

Tomorrow I will have final thoughts on today’s arguments and where the movement goes, in California and elsewhere, from here. And although I  typically have no idea what I’m going to blog about in the future, I can state with assurance that next week’s blogs will be rife with withering analysis and condemnation of (some of the) anti-marriage-equality forces, whose sanctimonious dissembling I can no longer bear. First up will be Maggie Gallagher, whom no reasonably intelligent person should take seriously. (As a start, go to Andrew Sullivan‘s blog where he summarizes some of the reaction to today’s Prop 8 arguments, including hers.)