The U.S. solicitor general’s performance before the Supreme Court on marriage is receiving mixed reviews amid disappointment that he didn’t overtly say same-sex marriage should be institutionalized nationwide as a result of the cases.
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was the sole attorney who argued in both cases before the court — one on California’s Proposition 8, the other on the Defense of Marriage Act. The message was the same for both measures: Laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption they’re unconstitutional.
But the nuance in what Verrilli said should be the outcome of the Prop 8 case is noteworthy. Asked by Chief Justice John Roberts whether the administration wants a ruling that would strike down marriage bans across the country, Verrilli declined to give an affirmative answer.
“We are not taking the position that it is required throughout the country,” Verrilli said. “We think that that ought to be left open for a future adjudication in other states that don’t have the situation California has.”
Under later questioning, Verrilli said a state would have to reach a “very heavy burden” to justify a measure similar to Prop 8, but at the same time said a “caution rationale” — presumably a wait-and-see approach to same-sex marriage — would be “one place where we might leave it open.”
Suzanne Goldberg, a lesbian and co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, said she was “uncomfortable” with Verrilli’s assertion that states may have justification to ban couples from marrying.
“He seemed to suggest that they might actually have a legitimate reason for maintaining the exclusion, and that did not seem necessary to me, given the arguments that he was making,” Goldberg said. “It did not feel right for the government’s attorney to suggest that their might actually be a plausible reason for a state to exclude same-sex couples from marriage.”
Goldberg drew a distinction between the arguments presented by the Justice Department in the Prop 8 and DOMA cases. For DOMA, Goldberg noted the administration hasn’t identified any instance in which the federal anti-gay law would be constitutional.
“That wasn’t the government’s position in the DOMA case even though the government said under the weakest standard of review, DOMA might be upheld,” Goldberg said. “But it did not suggest any of the rationales would be sufficient.”
It should be noted that Verrilli’s arguments in the Prop 8 case are consistent with the friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Justice Department against the California measure. The brief never explicitly says all bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional and instead focuses on Prop 8, which is the question before the court.
Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based advocate, said the presentation of that limited argument on marriage equality is not the fault of Verrilli — whom he said “did a good job” — but is the result of the White House making a political calculation on the Prop 8 case.
“I think that they made some political choices that were not the ones exactly I would have made,” Socarides said. “And I think that some of those came back to haunt them.”
Verrilli noted that California offers gay couples domestic partnerships, suggesting the court should rule that states offering some benefits to gay couples, but not marriage, should instead offer them marriage rights. Legal experts have coined this potential decision as the “nine-state solution.”
But Socarides questioned the wisdom of embracing that position, noting justices seemed disinclined to adopt a ruling saying states that offer some benefits to gay couples aren’t doing enough while leaving other jurisdictions unaffected.
“I think that argument is too clever by half,” Socarides said. “I appreciate the fact that I think the White House was trying to thread the needle there a little bit. It may have served its purpose, but I think in retrospect not the best decision.”
David Gans, civil rights director for the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center, found a positive in the limited argument presented by Verrilli: it provides another option to justices unswayed by American Foundation for Equal Rights attorney Ted Olson’s argument in favor of a fundamental right to same-sex marriage.
“In some ways, it was a very useful complement to the argument that Ted Olson made,” Gans said. “What Verrilli offered was sort of an alternative. Olson and Verrilli gave them a broader option as well as a narrow one that would decide this case, but not other cases. In light of some of the concern expressed by justices, in the end, it may prove valuable.”
Several legal experts and LGBT advocacy groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, declined to comment for this article.
Socarides emphasized the Justice Department has already stepped up to the plate in helping same-sex couples win their rights at the Supreme Court by dropping defense of DOMA and participating in the Prop 8 case.
“I would also emphasize that, I think at this point, we’re really quibbling around the edges and that we want to be very grateful for the work that the Justice Department did and for the president’s support,” Socarides said.
That was a sentiment shared by Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, who commended the Justice Department for its work before the bench and in the briefs that were filed.
“Briefs speak louder than arguments, and the Solicitor General effectively dismantled every argument made in defense of excluding gay couples from marriage and inflicting unequal treatment on married gay couples under so-called DOMA,” Wolfson said. “He repeatedly urged the justices to focus on what is really going on: discrimination against gay people and indefensible denial of the freedom to marry, and when they go back and read his briefs in both cases, the justices will see a strong, clear path forward toward the freedom to marry and repudiation of the impermissible discrimination we have endured for too long.”