Case Study: Obergefell v. Hodges

Case Study:
576 U.S.; Obergefell v. Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of Health, et al. (2015)

Full Text of Opinion:

1. Summary of Case and Decision.

This case addresses several cases consolidated by the Sixth Circuit Court where same-sex couples filed District Court suits when their States had either denied them marriage licenses or refused to recognize same-sex marriages performed lawfully in other States. The District Courts all ruled in favor of these people, but the Circuit Court reversed and ruled against them.

Associate Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion reversed the Sixth Circuit Court’s decision. The Supreme Court determined States must grant marriage licenses to same-sex partners and recognize the legality of same-sex marriages performed in other States, per the Fourteenth Amendment.

2. Opinion as to Jurisdiction and Justiciability.

The opinion asserts marriage is a fundamental civil right and therefore covered by the Fourteenth Amendment “guarantee of equal protection” as a fundamental constitutional right. The opinion argues the Court can strike down laws which create inequality even when such laws have not been previously challenged. The opinion rejects arguments that more debate and studies need to be done, arguing that a body of law and literature has sufficiently addressed the question, and that “individuals who are harmed need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right.”

The Court refused to leave the fundamental right to marry in the hands of State legislatures because citizens were being denied Constitutionally-protected liberties. The opinion asserts this fundamentally constitutional matter falls within the jurisdiction of the Court and is entirely justiciable, not a matter which must await State legislation.

3. Opinion as to the Definition of Marriage.

The opinion’s discussion of the definition of marriage is broken down into several arguments. First, the opinion rejects arguments that same-sex marriages demean marriage, reasoning that same-sex applicants clearly place a high value on marriage or else would not pursue it. Second, the opinion recognizes that the institution of marriage has greatly changed and been redefined throughout history, and the inclusion of same-sex partners is merely one more phase in that historical trend. (The opinion refers especially to prior laws banning inter-racial marriages, though it touches on other historical trends such as arranged marriage.) Finally, the opinion gives no credence to arguments on the immorality of homosexual acts, arguing instead that laws to that effect demean citizens.

4. Opinion as to Marriage as a Fundamental Constitutional Right.

Four principles support the opinion’s assertion that marriage is a fundamental, constitutional right. First, the choice to marry is “inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.” Second, marriage “supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to committed individuals.” Third, marriage “safeguards children and families” by providing stability and dignity. (The court rejects arguments that intent to procreate is a qualification for marriage, reasoning that even opposite-sex unions may choose not to procreate.) Fourth, “marriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order” due to the role it plays legally and socially.

5. Dissenting Opinions.

Dissenting opinions claim the Court had the “power to say what the law is, not what it should be,” denying arguments on the constitutionality of marriage rights. Dissenters argued marriage has “always been understood” as between a man and a woman, and was understood as such when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. Dissenters argued this core definition is not subject to change until State legislatures or public referenda redefine it through the democratic process. Dissenters argued the Court was not interpreting law but making policy, a job reserved for the legislature.

Dissenters found no merit in applying the Fourteenth Amendment to marriage, arguing that the judicial role is not to determine which rights are fundamental constitutional rights. Alito argued the constitution gives the people the right to determine what marriage is, not a fundamental right to marry regardless of gender. Thomas’ dissent focuses on the definition of liberty in terms of the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and argues that denying same-sex marriages in no way infringes upon a citizen’s liberty. He asserts that protected liberties are freedom from government interference, not necessarily freedom to do anything.

Dissenters argued that judicial precedent does not support the majority opinion, and the opinion is based solely on the majority’s belief that same-sex couples should be able to marry.

6. Conclusion.

Though I am glad for the Supreme Court’s decision, the Dissenters have valid reservations about the Court’s pushing the boundaries of its power. However, future generations will look back on this decision as favorably as Brown v. Board of Education, where the Court exercised power to strike down segregated education, or even Abraham Lincoln’s decision to end the institution of slavery. Neither of these actions was viewed without dissent at the time. Yet progressive-minded people view them favorably, for they acted against discrimination, inequality, and bigotry.

A fully democratic process does little to prevent abuses of minorities. The majority can always vote to marginalize a minority group, and this is the weakness of leaving this matter to State legislatures. As long as the Supreme Court uses its power to provide equal civil rights, then I applaud its application of power. The letter of the law as to the boundaries of power will always be a subordinate concern to the primary questions of improving justice in a society based on equality and fairness.

APPENDIX: Amendment 14, Section 1 (of 5)

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Passed by Congress 13 June, 1866. Ratified 9 July, 1868.

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