September 19, 2012 | by Chris Johnson
High stakes in marriage cases awaiting Supreme Court
Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

The U.S. Supreme Court could decide as soon as next week whether it’ll hear cases related to DOMA and Proposition 8. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

All eyes will be on the U.S. Supreme Court next week when it could announce whether it will take up high-profile LGBT-related cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 — and the results of those decisions could have an immediate impact on the marriage rights of same-sex couples.

On Monday, justices are scheduled to hold their first conference to decide cases they will consider when they reconvene in October following their summer recess. Among the cases docketed for this meeting is federal litigation challenging Prop 8, now known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, and one of the cases challenging Section 3 of DOMA, Windsor v. United States.

Justices can decide to take up a case, decline to hear it or put off the decision on considering the lawsuit for a future conference. It takes a vote of four justices to grant a writ of certiorari (to take up a case) but the decision will be put off if any one justice wants more time to decide.

The decision on the Prop 8 case is of particular note because if the court decides against taking up the case and lets stand an appeals court decision against the same-sex marriage ban, gay couples would once again have the right to marry in the nation’s most populous state immediately following a mandate from the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals.

But if the Supreme Court decides to take up the case, the ban would remain in effect until the justices make their own ruling in the lawsuit. It’s possible the court could make a decision saying lower courts erred in overturning Prop 8. For the same-sex marriage ban to come to an end at that point, another lawsuit coming up from the district courts or repeal of Prop 8 at the ballot would be necessary.

Jennifer Pizer, legal director for the Williams Institute, said while she thinks the court is likely to take up cases related to DOMA, it’s a “much harder guess” whether justices will decide to hear the Prop 8 litigation.

“There might well be four justices that disagree with what the Ninth Circuit held, but I think it would be challenging for them probably — as it is for everybody else who’s watching the court — to wonder where a fifth vote might go,” Pizer said. “So I think it’s even odds that the court will not review in Perry.”

Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said in the event that the Supreme Court decides not to hear the Prop 8 case, gay couples should wait for the mandate from the Ninth Circuit before marrying in California.

“My advice to people is plan a nice wedding as opposed to running that day to go get married because there’s always some risk for couples that get married and 10 years split up, one might say, ‘You didn’t really get legally married because the injunction wasn’t in place yet and Prop 8 was still the law and they shouldn’t have married us,’” Davidson said. “Although I think that argument would lose, people don’t need to take on potentially having to fight about that later. If they just wait until the mandate, there won’t be any question.”

There could be an advantage for the LGBT community if the Supreme Court takes up the lawsuit because it could produce a ruling that would affect not only California, but all states with same-sex marriage bans throughout the country. Still, this level of examination bring a new scope of review to the Prop 8 lawsuit because the Ninth Circuit was limited in the way it restricted its reasoning to California.

Pizer said the Supreme Court could rule with a larger scope when considering the constitutionality of Prop 8, but such an evaluation would be unlikely given the limited nature of the Ninth Circuit ruling.

“I think it’s extremely unlikely that there would be a ruling either calling in question all the marriage restrictions of all the states that have them, or on the flip-side, holding that marriage absolutely as a matter of federal law must be restricted just to different-sex couples,” Pizer said. “The things that could be done on the more extreme ends of something favorable or unfavorable to same-sex couples is not so likely.”

The situation is slightly different for the DOMA lawsuits because the Windsor case is the only one that has been fully briefed and docketed for the Sept. 24 conference. The court may not issue a decision on reviewing DOMA until the full range of lawsuits challenging the anti-gay law have been scheduled for consideration.

More DOMA-related cases haven’t yet been set for consideration even though the high court has been asked to consider them. They’re the consolidated case of Gill v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Department of Health & Human Services, the only lawsuit in which an appeals court has ruled against DOMA, as well as Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management and Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management.

Davidson said the Supreme Court could also wait to make a decision on whether to hear the Prop 8 lawsuit until making a decision on whether to hear the DOMA cases.

“Different issues in the cases, but they might say, ‘Well, let’s think about all these at the same time to think about whether we should grant review in both kinds of cases or one, and which order,” Davidson said.

As with the Prop 8 case, if the Supreme Court decided against hearing the DOMA cases, it would have significant immediate impact. The federal government would recognize the same-sex marriages of states within the jurisdiction of the First Circuit and other challenges against DOMA would continue up the pipeline.

But the court is widely expected to decide to take up the constitutionality of DOMA because unlike Prop 8, the issue is related to federal law and the U.S. Justice Department has interceded — first in July and again this month — to ask the court to take up each of the four cases pending before the court related to the law. And a ruling from the Supreme Court would almost certainly have a nationwide scope that would enable federal recognition of same-sex marriages throughout the country as opposed to a ruling that would affect only one state.

There’s another benefit to the LGBT community if the Supreme Court were to take up the cases: the application of higher standard of review for cases related to sexual orientation. The Golinski and Pedersen cases are unique among the other DOMA lawsuits because they are the only ones in which lower courts have ruled against DOMA on the basis that they don’t meet the standards of heightened scrutiny, or the assumption they’re unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court were to consider these cases along with other DOMA cases, it could set precedent for applying heightened scrutiny to other laws in the future.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of the anti-gay side would be significantly burdensome for supporters of same-sex marriage. That would mean opponents of the law would have to fight through the legislative process to lift the ban — a daunting task especially if Republicans were to retain control of the House.

Justices also have an opportunity in taking up the DOMA cases to assert whether the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which took up defense of DOMA after the Obama administration declined to defend the law, has standing to defend it. Some lower courts have hinted BLAG may lack standing to defend DOMA because it’s a committee within the House that hasn’t been approved by a floor vote in either chamber of Congress.

Doug NeJaime, who’s gay and a law professor at Loyola Law School, said the role of BLAG and where the committee derives its authority presents an interesting question to the Supreme Court.

“It would be interesting to see whether the justices actually ask those threshold questions about what the status and standing of BLAG actually is,” NeJaime said. “Because both sides want a substantive determination, I think that’s partly why we haven’t seen it become a huge issue, but it is an interesting question.”

It’s unclear what the schedule will be like for the cases if the Supreme Court decides to take them up. Briefings would ensue in the months that follow and oral arguments may take place in the spring for the court to make a ruling before it adjourns in June. For the DOMA lawsuit, the Supreme Court may take up the cases, but decline to take action until more appellate courts have made decisions on the pending litigation.

Pizer said the Supreme Court may seek to hear arguments on the Prop 8 cases at the same time because they’re both related to marriage.

“The DOMA cases are quite distinct from Perry, but at the same time, they concern marriage for same-sex couples, and certainly some of the arguments made in all these cases resemble, so it wouldn’t be that surprising for the justices to decide to consider a number of them at the same time,” Pizer said.

Legal experts also say the votes of each of the justices in granting a writ of certiorari shouldn’t be an indication of how they’ll ultimately rule in each of the cases.

NeJaime said observers “can’t read too much into” the certiorari votes because justices may decide to take up the cases either because they want to uphold or strike down the laws at hand.

“I think there are clearly going to be justices, for instance, on the DOMA cases that want to take it to overturn, and will overturn DOMA, and, I think, there are justices that want to take it and would uphold DOMA, so I think it’s hard to tell, although I think the DOMA cases are the stronger cases for the LGBT side,” NeJaime said.

Other LGBT cases pending before the Supreme Court are scheduled for September conference, but they aren’t as high-profile as the marriage cases. Justices will consider whether to take up the case of Diaz v. Brewer, in which Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has appealed an injunction placed by a district court prohibiting her from enforcing a law taking away domestic partner benefits from Arizona state employees. Another pending case is National Organization for Marriage v. McKee, in which the anti-gay organization is challenging Maine disclosure laws requiring it to reveal donors regarding its involvement in the 2009 marriage ballot initiative in the state.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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