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Vermont Follows Iowa! (But in a Very Different Way)

April 7th, 2009 2 comments

I returned from class to learn that the Vermont legislature has just overridden Governor Douglas’s veto of marriage equality legislation. 100 votes in the House were needed for the override; exactly 100 were obtained. (The Senate’s override was by an overwhelming majority.) Now, we have the first state in which marriage for gay couples has been achieved by a legislature acting without being required or pressured to do so by a court. In this post, I offer some background and a few thoughts about what this might mean.

First I have to say that I was stunned. With all attention, including my own, focused on Iowa, I didn’t realize that the governor’s veto had already taken place (the Vermont house voted on the bill just last Friday, the same day as the decision in Iowa), much less that the override votes were taking place. Nor did I realize that there was a good chance of overriding the veto: When the bill passed, it did so with only 95 votes. Somehow supporters found the five additional votes they needed.

So Vermont now becomes the fifth state to recognize marriage equality.1  But it was the first to move very substantially in that direction. In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court decided Baker v. State, the first sort-of-successful marriage equality case. The five justices were unanimous that same-sex couples were entitled to the benefits of marriage, but stopped just short of requiring the legislature to grant them the right to marry.2 Instead, they held, the law-makers might choose to provide access to some parallel institution conferring all or substantially all of the benefits of marriage — but not the label. Thus was the civil union born.

In an earlier post, I wrote tongue-in-cheekily about the significance attached to this label, wondering whether same-sex couples might be entitled to “mariage” — with one “r” — since the word “marriage” seemed to be the problem. But from a purely political perspective, the court’s decision turned out to be brilliant: The civil union didn’t generate the kind of oppositional heat that “marriage” would have, gave straight Vermont citizens some time to settle into the truth that same-sex couples’ unions didn’t threaten theirs, and eventually led to a commission report finding that civil unions weren’t leading to the full equality that the Vermont court had hoped for.  Ten years later, marriage equality is achieved.

The significance of equality through legislative means can’t be emphasized enough. One of the most effective (though wrong) criticisms of the push for marriage equality is that it’s been achieved through the courts: “activist judges,” “fascists in robes,” and “philosopher kings” have pushed this on the public, according to the opposition. What will they say now?

Some of the most extreme complain that the legislature isn’t democratic either, conveniently overlooking the whole notion of representative democracy. Traction, this will  have none. It’s particularly unconvincing in a small state like Vermont, where the state legislators have a great deal of contact with their constituents. Here is the link to this morning’s House vote in Vermont and the few comment that preceded it. Note the respect that both sides urge; one opponent says that, even if he loses, he will, as a Justice of the Peace, respect the law and perform same-sex marriages. Here are legislators who are very respectful and close to the voters.

The California legislature twice tried to enact marriage equality, only to have the governor veto both bills. So Vermont becomes the first state to grant basic equality to gay and lesbian couples; again, without judicial compulsion of any kind. What might it mean? I’m hesitant to say too much so soon, but let me try this: The Vermont move could well energize other somewhat progressive state legislatures to follow suit: the other New England states (especially New Hampshire and Maine); New Jersey; and New York are the likeliest. Once that happens, I think the push for marriage equality in California becomes even stronger; Prop 8 could be repealed as soon as next year, even if, as expected, the California Supreme Court allows it to stand.

And apres California, le deluge.

  1. I’m including California among the five, because equality was recognized for a time. It’s currently on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision on Prop 8.
  2. One justice wrote that the couples were entitled to full marriage equality.