The Supreme Court’s decision to deny certiorari on five marriage cases surprised many legal observers amid expectations that the justices would want to weigh in on the hot button national issue.
But maybe it shouldn’t have. In recent public comments, justices have dropped hints that a decision was made and they weren’t eager to take up the issue at this time because of unanimity thus far in favor of marriage equality at the circuit level.
Just last week, U.S. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia made headlines after a speech at the University of Colorado, teasing the crowd when asked when we’ll find out if the high court will take up marriage by saying, “I know when, but I’m not going to tell you. Soon! Soon!”
How could he declare with such certainty that he knew the answer for the timing? Because he knew at the Sept. 29 conference that a vote to grant certiorari had failed in each of the five marriage cases and orders announcing the petitions were denied were forthcoming from the court.
It takes an affirmative vote of four justices to grant certiorari (or decide to take up a case), but a petition is denied if that four-vote threshold isn’t met. The results of those votes aren’t public, nor was any explanation given, but that hasn’t stopped speculation about what motivated justices to turn down an opportunity to decide what many consider to be the case of the century.
A commonly cited reason for the Supreme Court’s decision to refrain from taking up the marriage issue is the unanimity of decisions striking down bans on same-sex marriage from the Fourth, Seventh and Tenth circuit courts of appeals.
Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, during a conference call with reporters, pointed to wide consensus among the courts that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
“It’s total speculation, but my speculation would be they decided that there was unanimity among the federal courts of appeal, and virtual unanimity among all the federal courts and almost all the state courts,” Davidson said. “Since the Windsor decision, it is clear that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. There was therefore no need for them to step in at the moment.”
That would be consistent with well-publicized remarks that U.S. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made weeks ago at a Minnesota Law School in which she reportedly said there’s “no need for us to rush” to take up marriage unless the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issues a decision upholding bans on same-sex marriage, which would cause a split among the circuit courts.
Many presumed she meant the petitions would be on hold before the Supreme Court as more courts ruled on marriage, but as it turns out the court was about to determine same-sex couples would soon be able to wed in each of the states where federal appeals courts struck down marriage bans: Utah, Virginia, Oklahoma, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Doug NeJaime, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, predicted that denial of certiorari from the Supreme Court would continue as long as circuit courts keep striking down bans on same-sex marriage.
“The court can allow this to keep moving forward without its intervention,” NeJaime said. “So long as decisions are going in the same direction, the court can wait to intervene until more states are in the marriage equality column.”
In the event that a future circuit court upholds bans on same-sex marriage — say the Sixth Circuit, or the more conservative U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — it would be incumbent on the more liberal justices to find four votes to grant certiorari to reverse the decision, which should be easier than the other way around.
An additional factor explaining the denial of certiorari is the judicial philosophy of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has a perceived reluctance to engage in controversial issues. It’s widely assumed the court decided to hear the case challenging California’s Proposition 8 because the four most conservative justices — U.S. Associate Justices Samuel Alito, U.S. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Roberts and Scalia — decided to grant certiorari in the case.
Roberts wrote the majority opinion on Prop 8, which ducks the merits of the case and instead ruled defendants didn’t have standing in the lawsuit. If he only took up the case for that reason and otherwise believes the Supreme Court should stay out of lower court decisions against same-sex marriage, it could have broke up the necessary four votes needed to take up a marriage case in the first place.
A variation on this explanation is the four conservative justices on the court didn’t think they had the five votes to overturn a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage if the court considered a case. The swing vote on the court — U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the decision against the Defense of Marriage Act — was presumably seen as a sure bet in favor of marriage equality.
Lambda’s Davidson elaborated on this possibility in the conference call with reporters.
“The four more conservative justices couldn’t count to five,” Davidson said. “They were not assured of a fifth vote, and so they didn’t want to grant review yet because that might allow there to be a decision that marriage equality is required across the country as soon as that case is decided.”
But one question that remains is why the Supreme Court decided to issue stays on same-sex marriages earlier in the year in Utah and more recently in Virginia if justices were going to refuse to hear the cases anyway. The presence of those stays was the biggest reason that legal experts assumed the Supreme Court intended to hear a marriage case.
Theodore Olson, co-counsel of the case that sought marriage in Virginia, was reluctant to speculate on why justices declined to hear the litigation, but told reporters the stays may have been enacted so the court could have more leeway to make a decision at a later time.
“I suspect that the Supreme Court granted a stay in the case, in all these cases initially so that it could consider whether or not it was going to hear the case and avoid the situation where if it had taken the case, it wanted to have the freedom to decide this one way or the other without the problem of people getting married, and then being exposed to the possibility that those marriages would somehow be upset by an adverse decision,” Olson said.
There are mixed views on what would happen to the states that now have marriage equality as a result of the denial certiorari in the event the court takes up a marriage case at later time, but determines bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional.
Some say same-sex marriages in those states would be allowed to continue; others say defendants in the case would have the option to move to halt the weddings, although couples that already wed would be allowed to stay married. Whatever the case, it’s hard to see how such a ruling would come down unless the makeup of the court changes in the immediate future.
Regardless of the explanation for why the Supreme Court denied certiorari, it made Oct. 6, 2014 a milestone moment in gay rights history and expanded marriage equality to five more states. The tally now stands at 24, and one can now drive from Richmond to Bangor without entering a state that bans gay marriage.
The decision also makes it likely that bans in other states in the Fourth and Tenth circuits — North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming — will soon fall. Once they go down, it would bring the number to 30.
Adam Romero, federal legal director for the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said justices knew the impact of what they doing when they denied certiorari whatever their reason for doing so.
“While the court did not provide its reasoning for denying review in these cases, I have no doubt that the justices were acutely aware of the effect — that denying review would clear the way for same-sex marriage to come to a number of states where it had been prohibited,” Romero said. “Perhaps also notable is that no justice issued a written dissent from the denial of cert or the lifting of the stays.”
And the number of same-sex marriage states will likely increase more now that courts are under additional guidance on handling the marriage issue. Additional circuit court decisions are expected soon from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on bans in Idaho and Nevada and from the Sixth Circuit on bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Meanwhile, LGBT advocates continue to urge the Supreme Court to find an appropriate vehicle to deliver a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage rights.
James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project, told reporters the denial of certiorari is a “watershed moment” and it’s on par now with a ruling from the Supreme Court at a nationwide level in many respects.
“It means that we get equality on the ground for same-sex couples more quickly in a whole bunch of places and also sends a signal to all the other judges in all the other states that are out there of where the Supreme Court may well be on this issue,” Esseks said. “And I think that’s going to get us to marriage in all 50 states very quickly.”