Saturday, December 15, 2012
The voter-approved legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington state makes it clear public attitudes about homosexuality and gay rights have shifted. Nine states have now legalized gay marriage.
Some gay-rights supporters also see as a victory the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear two cases that challenge federal and state laws that define marriage as only unions between a man and woman.
It is their hope that society’s shifting views will sway the high court to rule in favor of gay marriage. Those folks could be disappointed.
The high court does not (or, at least, should not) make its rulings on what it wants to happen. The court must decide if specific laws approved are constitutional. And even then, those laws are often looked at very narrowly. This can cause the rulings to apply to only the state in question or the case could be sent back down to a lower court.
Given the complexity of same-sex marriage and the growing number of states who have enacted laws, it is far more likely it will take years — maybe decades — to sort it all out.
In taking these two cases, the high court essentially seems to be starting the journey.
One case from California seeks to establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in the 41 remaining states, almost all of which have laws or constitutional provisions prohibiting it. The other asks whether the federal government can discriminate against same-sex couples married in states or countries that allow same-sex unions.
Legal analysts have been combing through the cases looking for clues as to why the justices took both cases instead of just one. Do the justices individually or as a bloc — conservative and liberal — have an agenda in picking these cases? Or do the justices simply see legitimate constitutional questions that need answering?
And the effort to figure out what direction the court is leaning will go into overdrive when the justices hear the arguments and start to ask questions.
Decisions in this case aren’t expected until June, and those decisions will likely fuel another round of legal challenges.