SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Nos. 14–556, 14-562, 14-571 and 14–574
JAMES OBERGEFELL, et al., PETITIONERS
RICHARD HODGES, DIRECTOR, OHIO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, et al.;
VALERIA TANCO, et al., PETITIONERS
BILL HASLAM, GOVERNOR OF TENNESSEE, et al.;
APRIL DeBOER, et al., PETITIONERS
RICK SNYDER, GOVERNOR OF MICHIGAN, et al.; AND
GREGORY BOURKE, et al., PETITIONERS
STEVE BESHEAR, GOVERNOR OF KENTUCKY
on writs of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit
[June 26, 2015]
Chief Justice Roberts, with whom Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas join, dissenting.
Petitioners make strong arguments rooted in social policy and considerations of fairness. They contend that same-sex couples should be allowed to affirm their love and commitment through marriage, just like opposite-sex couples. That position has undeniable appeal; over the past six years, voters and legislators in eleven States and the District of Columbia have revised their laws to allow marriage between two people of the same sex.
But this Court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be. The people who ratified the Constitution authorized courts to exercise “neither force nor will but merely judgment.” The Federalist No. 78, p. 465 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton) (capitalization altered).
Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not. The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage. And a State’s decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational. In short, our Constitution does not enact any one theory of marriage. The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.
Today, however, the Court takes the extraordinary step of ordering every State to license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening. Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view. That ends today. Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.
The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial “caution” and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own “new insight” into the “nature of injustice.” Ante, at 11, 23. As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?
It can be tempting for judges to confuse our own preferences with the requirements of the law. But as this Court has been reminded throughout our history, the Constitution “is made for people of fundamentally differing views.”Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45, 76 (1905) (Holmes, J., dissenting). Accordingly, “courts are not concerned with the wisdom or policy of legislation.” Id., at 69 (Harlan, J., dissenting). The majority today neglects that restrained conception of the judicial role. It seizes for itself a question the Constitution leaves to the people, at a time when the people are engaged in a vibrant debate on that question. And it answers that question based not on neutral principles of constitutional law, but on its own “understanding of what freedom is and must become.” Ante, at 19. I have no choice but to dissent.
Understand well what this dissent is about: It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law. The Constitution leaves no doubt about the answer.
Petitioners and their amici base their arguments on the “right to marry” and the imperative of “marriage equality.” There is no serious dispute that, under our precedents, the Constitution protects a right to marry and requires States to apply their marriage laws equally. The real question in these cases is what constitutes “marriage,” or—more precisely—who decides what constitutes “marriage”?
The majority largely ignores these questions, relegating ages of human experience with marriage to a paragraph or two. Even if history and precedent are not “the end” of these cases, ante, at 4, I would not “sweep away what has so long been settled” without showing greater respect for all that preceded us. Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 8).
As the majority acknowledges, marriage “has existed for millennia and across civilizations.” Ante, at 3. For all those millennia, across all those civilizations, “marriage” referred to only one relationship: the union of a man and a woman. See ante, at 4; Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, p. 12 (petitioners conceding that they are not aware of any society that permitted same-sex marriage before 2001). As the Court explained two Terms ago, “until recent years, . . . marriage between a man and a woman no doubt had been thought of by most people as essential to the very definition of that term and to its role and function throughout the history of civilization.” United States v. Windsor, 570 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 13).
This universal definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman is no historical coincidence. Marriage did not come about as a result of a political movement, discovery, disease, war, religious doctrine, or any other moving force of world history—and certainly not as a result of a prehistoric decision to exclude gays and lesbians. It arose in the nature of things to meet a vital need: ensuring that children are conceived by a mother and father committed to raising them in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship. See G. Quale, A History of Marriage Systems 2 (1988); cf. M. Cicero, De Officiis 57 (W. Miller transl. 1913) (“For since the reproductive instinct is by nature’s gift the common possession of all living creatures, the first bond of union is that between husband and wife; the next, that between parents and children; then we find one home, with everything in common.”).
The premises supporting this concept of marriage are so fundamental that they rarely require articulation. The human race must procreate to survive. Procreation occurs through sexual relations between a man and a woman. When sexual relations result in the conception of a child, that child’s prospects are generally better if the mother and father stay together rather than going their separate ways. Therefore, for the good of children and society, sexual relations that can lead to procreation should occur only between a man and a woman committed to a lasting bond.
Society has recognized that bond as marriage. And by bestowing a respected status and material benefits on married couples, society encourages men and women to conduct sexual relations within marriage rather than without. As one prominent scholar put it, “Marriage is a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children, and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve.” J. Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem 41 (2002).
This singular understanding of marriage has prevailed in the United States throughout our history. The majority accepts that at “the time of the Nation’s founding [marriage] was understood to be a voluntary contract between a man and a woman.” Ante, at 6. Early Americans drew heavily on legal scholars like William Blackstone, who regarded marriage between “husband and wife” as one of the “great relations in private life,” and philosophers like John Locke, who described marriage as “a voluntary compact between man and woman” centered on “its chief end, procreation” and the “nourishment and support” of children. 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *410; J. Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government §§78–79, p. 39 (J. Gough ed. 1947). To those who drafted and ratified the Constitution, this conception of marriage and family “was a given: its structure, its stability, roles, and values accepted by all.” Forte, The Framers’ Idea of Marriage and Family, in The Meaning of Marriage 100, 102 (R. George & J. Elshtain eds. 2006).
The Constitution itself says nothing about marriage, and the Framers thereby entrusted the States with “[t]he whole subject of the domestic relations of husband and wife.” Windsor, 570 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17) (quoting In re Burrus, 136 U. S. 586 –594 (1890)). There is no dispute that every State at the founding—and every State throughout our history until a dozen years ago—defined marriage in the traditional, biologically rooted way. The four States in these cases are typical. Their laws, before and after statehood, have treated marriage as the union of a man and a woman. See DeBoer v. Snyder, 772 F. 3d 388, 396–399 (CA6 2014). Even when state laws did not specify this definition expressly, no one doubted what they meant. See Jones v. Hallahan, 501 S. W. 2d 588, 589 (Ky. App. 1973). The meaning of “marriage” went without saying.
Of course, many did say it. In his first American dictionary, Noah Webster defined marriage as “the legal union of a man and woman for life,” which served the purposes of “preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, . . . promoting domestic felicity, and . . . securing the maintenance and education of children.” 1 An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). An influential 19th-century treatise defined marriage as “a civil status, existing in one man and one woman legally united for life for those civil and social purposes which are based in the distinction of sex.” J. Bishop, Commentaries on the Law of Marriage and Divorce 25 (1852). The first edition of Black’s Law Dictionary defined marriage as “the civil status of one man and one woman united in law for life.” Black’s Law Dictionary 756 (1891) (emphasis deleted). The dictionary maintained essentially that same definition for the next century.
This Court’s precedents have repeatedly described marriage in ways that are consistent only with its traditional meaning. Early cases on the subject referred to marriage as “the union for life of one man and one woman,” Murphy v. Ramsey, 114 U. S. 15, 45 (1885) , which forms “the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress,” Maynard v. Hill, 125 U. S. 190, 211 (1888) . We later described marriage as “fundamental to our very existence and survival,” an understanding that necessarily implies a procreative component. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1, 12 (1967) ; see Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U. S. 535, 541 (1942) . More recent cases have directly connected the right to marry with the “right to procreate.” Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U. S. 374, 386 (1978) .
As the majority notes, some aspects of marriage have changed over time. Arranged marriages have largely given way to pairings based on romantic love. States have replaced coverture, the doctrine by which a married man and woman became a single legal entity, with laws that respect each participant’s separate status. Racial restrictions on marriage, which “arose as an incident to slavery” to promote “White Supremacy,” were repealed by many States and ultimately struck down by this Court. Loving, 388 U. S., at 6–7.
The majority observes that these developments “were not mere superficial changes” in marriage, but rather “worked deep transformations in its structure.”Ante, at 6–7. They did not, however, work any transformation in the core structure of marriage as the union between a man and a woman. If you had asked a person on the street how marriage was defined, no one would ever have said, “Marriage is the union of a man and a woman, where the woman is subject to coverture.” The majority may be right that the “history of marriage is one of both continuity and change,” but the core meaning of marriage has endured. Ante, at 6.
Shortly after this Court struck down racial restrictions on marriage in Loving, a gay couple in Minnesota sought a marriage license. They argued that the Constitution required States to allow marriage between people of the same sex for the same reasons that it requires States to allow marriage between people of different races. The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected their analogy to Loving, and this Court summarily dismissed an appeal. Baker v. Nelson, 409 U. S. 810 (1972) .
In the decades after Baker, greater numbers of gays and lesbians began living openly, and many expressed a desire to have their relationships recognized as marriages. Over time, more people came to see marriage in a way that could be extended to such couples. Until recently, this new view of marriage remained a minority position. After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 interpreted its State Constitution to require recognition of same-sex marriage, many States—including the four at issue here—enacted constitutional amendments formally adopting the longstanding definition of marriage.
Over the last few years, public opinion on marriage has shifted rapidly. In 2009, the legislatures of Vermont, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia became the first in the Nation to enact laws that revised the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, while also providing accommodations for religious believers. In 2011, the New York Legislature enacted a similar law. In 2012, voters in Maine did the same, reversing the result of a referendum just three years earlier in which they had upheld the traditional definition of marriage.
In all, voters and legislators in eleven States and the District of Columbia have changed their definitions of marriage to include same-sex couples. The highest courts of five States have decreed that same result under their own Constitutions. The remainder of the States retain the traditional definition of marriage.
Petitioners brought lawsuits contending that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment compel their States to license and recognize marriages between same-sex couples. In a carefully reasoned decision, the Court of Appeals acknowledged the democratic “momentum” in favor of “expand[ing] the definition of marriage to include gay couples,” but concluded that petitioners had not made “the case for constitutionalizing the definition of marriage and for removing the issue from the place it has been since the founding: in the hands of state voters.” 772 F. 3d, at 396, 403. That decision interpreted the Constitution correctly, and I would affirm.
Petitioners first contend that the marriage laws of their States violate the Due Process Clause. The Solicitor General of the United States, appearing in support of petitioners, expressly disowned that position before this Court. See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 38–39. The majority nevertheless resolves these cases for petitioners based almost entirely on the Due Process Clause.
The majority purports to identify four “principles and traditions” in this Court’s due process precedents that support a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry. Ante, at 12. In reality, however, the majority’s approach has no basis in principle or tradition, except for the unprincipled tradition of judicial policymaking that characterized discredited decisions such as Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45 . Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.
Petitioners’ “fundamental right” claim falls into the most sensitive category of constitutional adjudication. Petitioners do not contend that their States’ marriage laws violate an enumerated constitutional right, such as the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. There is, after all, no “Companionship and Understanding” or “Nobility and Dignity” Clause in the Constitution. See ante, at 3, 14. They argue instead that the laws violate a right implied by the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement that “liberty” may not be deprived without “due process of law.”
This Court has interpreted the Due Process Clause to include a “substantive” component that protects certain liberty interests against state deprivation “no matter what process is provided.” Reno v. Flores, 507 U. S. 292, 302 (1993) . The theory is that some liberties are “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,” and therefore cannot be deprived without compelling justification. Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U. S. 97, 105 (1934).
Allowing unelected federal judges to select which unenumerated rights rank as “fundamental”—and to strike down state laws on the basis of that determination—raises obvious concerns about the judicial role. Our precedents have accordingly insisted that judges “exercise the utmost care” in identifying implied fundamental rights, “lest the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause be subtly transformed into the policy preferences of the Members of this Court.” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U. S. 702, 720 (1997) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Kennedy, Unenumerated Rights and the Dictates of Judicial Restraint 13 (1986) (Address at Stanford) (“One can conclude that certain essential, or fundamental, rights should exist in any just society. It does not follow that each of those essential rights is one that we as judges can enforce under the written Constitution. The Due Process Clause is not a guarantee of every right that should inhere in an ideal system.”).
The need for restraint in administering the strong medicine of substantive due process is a lesson this Court has learned the hard way. The Court first applied substantive due process to strike down a statute in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 19 How. 393 (1857). There the Court invalidated the Missouri Compromise on the ground that legislation restricting the institution of slavery violated the implied rights of slaveholders. The Court relied on its own conception of liberty and property in doing so. It asserted that “an act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States . . . could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.” Id., at 450. In a dissent that has outlasted the majority opinion, Justice Curtis explained that when the “fixed rules which govern the interpretation of laws [are] abandoned, and the theoretical opinions of individuals are allowed to control” the Constitution’s meaning, “we have no longer a Constitution; we are under the government of individual men, who for the time being have power to declare what the Constitution is, according to their own views of what it ought to mean.” Id., at 621.
Dred Scott’s holding was overruled on the battlefields of the Civil War and by constitutional amendment after Appomattox, but its approach to the Due Process Clause reappeared. In a series of early 20th-century cases, most prominently Lochner v. New York, this Court invalidated state statutes that presented “meddlesome interferences with the rights of the individual,” and “undue interference with liberty of person and freedom of contract.” 198 U. S., at 60, 61. In Lochner itself, the Court struck down a New York law setting maximum hours for bakery employees, because there was “in our judgment, no reasonable foundation for holding this to be necessary or appropriate as a health law.” Id., at 58.
The dissenting Justices in Lochner explained that the New York law could be viewed as a reasonable response to legislative concern about the health of bakery employees, an issue on which there was at least “room for debate and for an honest difference of opinion.” Id., at 72 (opinion of Harlan, J.). The majority’s contrary conclusion required adopting as constitutional law “an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain.” Id., at 75 (opinion of Holmes, J.). As Justice Holmes memorably put it, “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics,” a leading work on the philosophy of Social Darwinism. Ibid. The Constitution “is not intended to embody a particular economic theory . . . . It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution.” Id., at 75–76.
In the decades after Lochner, the Court struck down nearly 200 laws as violations of individual liberty, often over strong dissents contending that “[t]he criterion of constitutionality is not whether we believe the law to be for the public good.”Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of D. C., 261 U. S. 525, 570 (1923) (opinion of Holmes, J.). By empowering judges to elevate their own policy judgments to the status of constitutionally protected “liberty,” the Lochner line of cases left “no alternative to regarding the court as a . . . legislative chamber.” L. Hand, The Bill of Rights 42 (1958).
Eventually, the Court recognized its error and vowed not to repeat it. “The doctrine that . . . due process authorizes courts to hold laws unconstitutional when they believe the legislature has acted unwisely,” we later explained, “has long since been discarded. We have returned to the original constitutional proposition that courts do not substitute their social and economic beliefs for the judgment of legislative bodies, who are elected to pass laws.” Ferguson v. Skrupa, 372 U. S. 726, 730 (1963) ; see Day-Brite Lighting, Inc. v. Missouri, 342 U. S. 421, 423 (1952) (“we do not sit as a super-legislature to weigh the wisdom of legislation”). Thus, it has become an accepted rule that the Court will not hold laws unconstitutional simply because we find them “unwise, improvident, or out of harmony with a particular school of thought.” Williamson v. Lee Optical of Okla., Inc., 348 U. S. 483, 488 (1955) .
Rejecting Lochner does not require disavowing the doctrine of implied fundamental rights, and this Court has not done so. But to avoid repeating Lochner’s error of converting personal preferences into constitutional mandates, our modern substantive due process cases have stressed the need for “judicial self-restraint.” Collins v. Harker Heights, 503 U. S. 115, 125 (1992) . Our precedents have required that implied fundamental rights be “objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.” Glucksberg, 521 U. S., at 720–721 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Although the Court articulated the importance of history and tradition to the fundamental rights inquiry most precisely in Glucksberg, many other cases both before and after have adopted the same approach. See, e.g., District Attorney’s Office for Third Judicial Dist. v. Osborne, 557 U. S. 52, 72 (2009) ; Flores, 507 U. S., at 303; United States v. Salerno, 481 U. S. 739, 751 (1987) ; Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U. S. 494, 503 (1977) (plurality opinion); see also id., at 544 (White, J., dissenting) (“The Judiciary, including this Court, is the most vulnerable and comes nearest to illegitimacy when it deals with judge-made constitutional law having little or no cognizable roots in the language or even the design of the Constitution.”); Troxel v. Granville, 530 U. S. 57 –101 (2000) (Kennedy, J., dissenting) (consulting “ ‘[o]ur Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices’ ” and concluding that “[w]e owe it to the Nation’s domestic relations legal structure . . . to proceed with caution” (quoting Glucksberg, 521 U. S., at 721)).
Proper reliance on history and tradition of course requires looking beyond the individual law being challenged, so that every restriction on liberty does not supply its own constitutional justification. The Court is right about that. Ante, at 18. But given the few “guideposts for responsible decisionmaking in this unchartered area,” Collins, 503 U. S., at 125, “an approach grounded in history imposes limits on the judiciary that are more meaningful than any based on [an] abstract formula,” Moore, 431 U. S., at 504, n. 12 (plurality opinion). Expanding a right suddenly and dramatically is likely to require tearing it up from its roots. Even a sincere profession of “discipline” in identifying fundamental rights, ante, at 10–11, does not provide a meaningful constraint on a judge, for “what he is really likely to be ‘discovering,’ whether or not he is fully aware of it, are his own values,” J. Ely, Democracy and Distrust 44 (1980). The only way to ensure restraint in this delicate enterprise is “continual insistence upon respect for the teachings of history, solid recognition of the basic values that underlie our society, and wise appreciation of the great roles [of] the doctrines of federalism and separation of powers.” Griswoldv. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479, 501 (1965) (Harlan, J., concurring in judgment).
The majority acknowledges none of this doctrinal background, and it is easy to see why: Its aggressive application of substantive due process breaks sharply with decades of precedent and returns the Court to the unprincipled approach of Lochner.
The majority’s driving themes are that marriage is desirable and petitioners desire it. The opinion describes the “transcendent importance” of marriage and repeatedly insists that petitioners do not seek to “demean,” “devalue,” “denigrate,” or “disrespect” the institution. Ante, at 3, 4, 6, 28. Nobody disputes those points. Indeed, the compelling personal accounts of petitioners and others like them are likely a primary reason why many Americans have changed their minds about whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. As a matter of constitutional law, however, the sincerity of petitioners’ wishes is not relevant.
When the majority turns to the law, it relies primarily on precedents discussing the fundamental “right to marry.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U. S. 78, 95 (1987) ; Zablocki, 434 U. S., at 383; see Loving, 388 U. S., at 12. These cases do not hold, of course, that anyone who wants to get married has a constitutional right to do so. They instead require a State to justify barriers to marriage as that institution has always been understood. In Loving, the Court held that racial restrictions on the right to marry lacked a compelling justification. In Zablocki, restrictions based on child support debts did not suffice. In Turner, restrictions based on status as a prisoner were deemed impermissible.
None of the laws at issue in those cases purported to change the core definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The laws challenged in Zablocki and Turner did not define marriage as “the union of a man and a woman, where neither party owes child support or is in prison.” Nor did the interracial marriage ban at issue in Loving define marriage as “the union of a man and a woman of the same race.” See Tragen, Comment, Statutory Prohibitions Against Interracial Marriage, 32 Cal. L. Rev. 269 (1944) (“at common law there was no ban on interracial marriage”); post, at 11–12, n. 5 (Thomas, J., dissenting). Removing racial barriers to marriage therefore did not change what a marriage was any more than integrating schools changed what a school was. As the majority admits, the institution of “marriage” discussed in every one of these cases “presumed a relationship involving opposite-sex partners.” Ante, at 11.
In short, the “right to marry” cases stand for the important but limited proposition that particular restrictions on access to marriage as traditionally defined violate due process. These precedents say nothing at all about a right to make a State change its definition of marriage, which is the right petitioners actually seek here. See Windsor, 570 U. S., at ___ (Alito, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 8) (“What Windsor and the United States seek . . . is not the protection of a deeply rooted right but the recognition of a very new right.”). Neither petitioners nor the majority cites a single case or other legal source providing any basis for such a constitutional right. None exists, and that is enough to foreclose their claim.
The majority suggests that “there are other, more instructive precedents” informing the right to marry. Ante, at 12. Although not entirely clear, this reference seems to correspond to a line of cases discussing an implied fundamental “right of privacy.” Griswold, 381 U. S., at 486. In the first of those cases, the Court invalidated a criminal law that banned the use of contraceptives. Id., at 485–486. The Court stressed the invasive nature of the ban, which threatened the intrusion of “the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms.” Id., at 485. In the Court’s view, such laws infringed the right to privacy in its most basic sense: the “right to be let alone.” Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U. S. 438 –454, n. 10 (1972) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Olmstead v. United States, 277 U. S. 438, 478 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).
The Court also invoked the right to privacy in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U. S. 558 (2003) , which struck down a Texas statute criminalizing homosexual sodomy.Lawrence relied on the position that criminal sodomy laws, like bans on contraceptives, invaded privacy by inviting “unwarranted government intrusions” that “touc[h] upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior . . . in the most private of places, the home.” Id., at 562, 567.
Neither Lawrence nor any other precedent in the privacy line of cases supports the right that petitioners assert here. Unlike criminal laws banning contraceptives and sodomy, the marriage laws at issue here involve no government intrusion. They create no crime and impose no punishment. Same-sex couples remain free to live together, to engage in intimate conduct, and to raise their families as they see fit. No one is “condemned to live in loneliness” by the laws challenged in these cases—no one. Ante, at 28. At the same time, the laws in no way interfere with the “right to be let alone.”
The majority also relies on Justice Harlan’s influential dissenting opinion in Poe v. Ullman, 367 U. S. 497 (1961) . As the majority recounts, that opinion states that “[d]ue process has not been reduced to any formula.” Id., at 542. But far from conferring the broad interpretive discretion that the majority discerns, Justice Harlan’s opinion makes clear that courts implying fundamental rights are not “free to roam where unguided speculation might take them.” Ibid. They must instead have “regard to what history teaches” and exercise not only “judgment” but “restraint.” Ibid. Of particular relevance, Justice Harlan explained that “laws regarding marriage which provide both when the sexual powers may be used and the legal and societal context in which children are born and brought up . . . form a pattern so deeply pressed into the substance of our social life that any Constitutional doctrine in this area must build upon that basis.” Id., at 546.
In sum, the privacy cases provide no support for the majority’s position, because petitioners do not seek privacy. Quite the opposite, they seek public recognition of their relationships, along with corresponding government benefits. Our cases have consistently refused to allow litigants to convert the shield provided by constitutional liberties into a sword to demand positive entitlements from the State. See DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Servs., 489 U. S. 189, 196 (1989) ; San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 1 –37 (1973); post, at 9–13 (Thomas, J., dissenting). Thus, although the right to privacy recognized by our precedents certainly plays a role in protecting the intimate conduct of same-sex couples, it provides no affirmative right to redefine marriage and no basis for striking down the laws at issue here.
Perhaps recognizing how little support it can derive from precedent, the majority goes out of its way to jettison the “careful” approach to implied fundamental rights taken by this Court in Glucksberg. Ante, at 18 (quoting 521 U. S., at 721). It is revealing that the majority’s position requires it to effectively overrule Glucksberg, the leading modern case setting the bounds of substantive due process. At least this part of the majority opinion has the virtue of candor. Nobody could rightly accuse the majority of taking a careful approach.
Ultimately, only one precedent offers any support for the majority’s methodology: Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45 . The majority opens its opinion by announcing petitioners’ right to “define and express their identity.” Ante, at 1–2. The majority later explains that “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.” Ante, at 12. This freewheeling notion of individual autonomy echoes nothing so much as “the general right of an individual to be free in his person and in his power to contract in relation to his own labor.”Lochner, 198 U. S., at 58 (emphasis added).
To be fair, the majority does not suggest that its individual autonomy right is entirely unconstrained. The constraints it sets are precisely those that accord with its own “reasoned judgment,” informed by its “new insight” into the “nature of injustice,” which was invisible to all who came before but has become clear “as we learn [the] meaning” of liberty. Ante, at 10, 11. The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to, and that “it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.” Ante, at 19.Whatever force that belief may have as a matter of moral philosophy, it has no more basis in the Constitution than did the naked policy preferences adopted in Lochner. See 198 U. S., at 61 (“We do not believe in the soundness of the views which uphold this law,” which “is an illegal interference with the rights of individuals . . . to make contracts regarding labor upon such terms as they may think best”).
The majority recognizes that today’s cases do not mark “the first time the Court has been asked to adopt a cautious approach to recognizing and protecting fundamental rights.” Ante, at 25. On that much, we agree. The Court was “asked”—and it agreed—to “adopt a cautious approach” to implying fundamental rights after the debacle of the Lochner era. Today, the majority casts caution aside and revives the grave errors of that period.
One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people. Cf. Brown v. Buhman, 947 F. Supp. 2d 1170 (Utah 2013), appeal pending, No. 14-4117 (CA10). Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective “two” in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one.
It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. If “[t]here is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,” ante, at 13, why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry? If a same-sex couple has the constitutional right to marry because their children would otherwise “suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser,” ante, at 15, why wouldn’t the same reasoning apply to a family of three or more persons raising children? If not having the opportunity to marry “serves to disrespect and subordinate” gay and lesbian couples, why wouldn’t the same “imposition of this disability,” ante, at 22, serve to disrespect and subordinate people who find fulfillment in polyamorous relationships? See Bennett, Polyamory: The Next Sexual Revolution? Newsweek, July 28, 2009 (estimating 500,000 polyamorous families in the United States); Li, Married Lesbian “Throuple” Expecting First Child, N. Y. Post, Apr. 23, 2014; Otter, Three May Not Be a Crowd: The Case for a Constitutional Right to Plural Marriage, 64 Emory L. J. 1977 (2015).
I do not mean to equate marriage between same-sex couples with plural marriages in all respects. There may well be relevant differences that compel different legal analysis. But if there are, petitioners have not pointed to any. When asked about a plural marital union at oral argument, petitioners asserted that a State “doesn’t have such an institution.” Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 2, p. 6. But that is exactly the point: the States at issue here do not have an institution of same-sex marriage, either.
Near the end of its opinion, the majority offers perhaps the clearest insight into its decision. Expanding marriage to include same-sex couples, the majority insists, would “pose no risk of harm to themselves or third parties.” Ante, at 27. This argument again echoes Lochner, which relied on its assessment that “we think that a law like the one before us involves neither the safety, the morals nor the welfare of the public, and that the interest of the public is not in the slightest degree affected by such an act.” 198 U. S., at 57.
Then and now, this assertion of the “harm principle” sounds more in philosophy than law. The elevation of the fullest individual self-realization over the constraints that society has expressed in law may or may not be attractive moral philosophy. But a Justice’s commission does not confer any special moral, philosophical, or social insight sufficient to justify imposing those perceptions on fellow citizens under the pretense of “due process.” There is indeed a process due the people on issues of this sort—the democratic process. Respecting that understanding requires the Court to be guided by law, not any particular school of social thought. As Judge Henry Friendly once put it, echoing Justice Holmes’s dissent in Lochner, the Fourteenth Amendment does not enact John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty any more than it enacts Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics. See Randolph, Before Roe v. Wade: Judge Friendly’s Draft Abortion Opinion, 29 Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 1035, 1036–1037, 1058 (2006). And it certainly does not enact any one concept of marriage.
The majority’s understanding of due process lays out a tantalizing vision of the future for Members of this Court: If an unvarying social institution enduring over all of recorded history cannot inhibit judicial policymaking, what can? But this approach is dangerous for the rule of law. The purpose of insisting that implied fundamental rights have roots in the history and tradition of our people is to ensure that when unelected judges strike down democratically enacted laws, they do so based on something more than their own beliefs. The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now. I agree with the majority that the “nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.” Ante, at 11. As petitioners put it, “times can blind.” Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 9, 10. But to blind yourself to history is both prideful and unwise. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” W. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 92 (1951).
In addition to their due process argument, petitioners contend that the Equal Protection Clause requires their States to license and recognize same-sex marriages. The majority does not seriously engage with this claim. Its discussion is, quite frankly, difficult to follow. The central point seems to be that there is a “synergy between” the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause, and that some precedents relying on one Clause have also relied on the other. Ante, at 20. Absent from this portion of the opinion, however, is anything resembling our usual framework for deciding equal protection cases. It is casebook doctrine that the “modern Supreme Court’s treatment of equal protection claims has used a means-ends methodology in which judges ask whether the classification the government is using is sufficiently related to the goals it is pursuing.” G. Stone, L. Seidman, C. Sunstein, M. Tushnet, & P. Karlan, Constitutional Law 453 (7th ed. 2013). The majority’s approach today is different:
“Rights implicit in liberty and rights secured by equal protection may rest on different precepts and are not always co-extensive, yet in some instances each may be instructive as to the meaning and reach of the other. In any particular case one Clause may be thought to capture the essence of the right in a more accurate and comprehensive way, even as the two Clauses may converge in the identification and definition of the right.” Ante, at 19.
The majority goes on to assert in conclusory fashion that the Equal Protection Clause provides an alternative basis for its holding. Ante, at 22. Yet the majority fails to provide even a single sentence explaining how the Equal Protection Clause supplies independent weight for its position, nor does it attempt to justify its gratuitous violation of the canon against unnecessarily resolving constitutional questions. See Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder, 557 U. S. 193, 197 (2009) . In any event, the marriage laws at issue here do not violate the Equal Protection Clause, because distinguishing between opposite-sex and same-sex couples is rationally related to the States’ “legitimate state interest” in “preserving the traditional institution of marriage.” Lawrence, 539 U. S., at 585 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment).
It is important to note with precision which laws petitioners have challenged. Although they discuss some of the ancillary legal benefits that accompany marriage, such as hospital visitation rights and recognition of spousal status on official documents, petitioners’ lawsuits target the laws defining marriage generally rather than those allocating benefits specifically. The equal protection analysis might be different, in my view, if we were confronted with a more focused challenge to the denial of certain tangible benefits. Of course, those more selective claims will not arise now that the Court has taken the drastic step of requiring every State to license and recognize marriages between same-sex couples.
The legitimacy of this Court ultimately rests “upon the respect accorded to its judgments.” Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U. S. 765, 793 (2002) (Kennedy, J., concurring). That respect flows from the perception—and reality—that we exercise humility and restraint in deciding cases according to the Constitution and law. The role of the Court envisioned by the majority today, however, is anything but humble or restrained. Over and over, the majority exalts the role of the judiciary in delivering social change. In the majority’s telling, it is the courts, not the people, who are responsible for making “new dimensions of freedom . . . apparent to new generations,” for providing “formal discourse” on social issues, and for ensuring “neutral discussions, without scornful or disparaging commentary.” Ante, at 7–9.
Nowhere is the majority’s extravagant conception of judicial supremacy more evident than in its description—and dismissal—of the public debate regarding same-sex marriage. Yes, the majority concedes, on one side are thousands of years of human history in every society known to have populated the planet. But on the other side, there has been “extensive litigation,” “many thoughtful District Court decisions,” “countless studies, papers, books, and other popular and scholarly writings,” and “more than 100” amicus briefs in these cases alone. Ante, at 9, 10, 23. What would be the point of allowing the democratic process to go on? It is high time for the Court to decide the meaning of marriage, based on five lawyers’ “better informed understanding” of “a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.” Ante, at 19. The answer is surely there in one of those amicus briefs or studies.
Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role. They after all risked their lives and fortunes for the precious right to govern themselves. They would never have imagined yielding that right on a question of social policy to unaccountable and unelected judges. And they certainly would not have been satisfied by a system empowering judges to override policy judgments so long as they do so after “a quite extensive discussion.” Ante, at 8. In our democracy, debate about the content of the law is not an exhaustion requirement to be checked off before courts can impose their will. “Surely the Constitution does not put either the legislative branch or the executive branch in the position of a television quiz show contestant so that when a given period of time has elapsed and a problem remains unresolved by them, the federal judiciary may press a buzzer and take its turn at fashioning a solution.” Rehnquist, The Notion of a Living Constitution, 54 Texas L. Rev. 693, 700 (1976). As a plurality of this Court explained just last year, “It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds.” Schuette v. BAMN, 572 U. S. ___, ___ –___ (2014) (slip op., at 16–17).
The Court’s accumulation of power does not occur in a vacuum. It comes at the expense of the people. And they know it. Here and abroad, people are in the midst of a serious and thoughtful public debate on the issue of same-sex marriage. They see voters carefully considering same-sex marriage, casting ballots in favor or opposed, and sometimes changing their minds. They see political leaders similarly reexamining their positions, and either reversing course or explaining adherence to old convictions confirmed anew. They see governments and businesses modifying policies and practices with respect to same-sex couples, and participating actively in the civic discourse. They see countries overseas democratically accepting profound social change, or declining to do so. This deliberative process is making people take seriously questions that they may not have even regarded as questions before.
When decisions are reached through democratic means, some people will inevitably be disappointed with the results. But those whose views do not prevail at least know that they have had their say, and accordingly are—in the tradition of our political culture—reconciled to the result of a fair and honest debate. In addition, they can gear up to raise the issue later, hoping to persuade enough on the winning side to think again. “That is exactly how our system of government is supposed to work.” Post, at 2–3 (Scalia, J., dissenting).
But today the Court puts a stop to all that. By deciding this question under the Constitution, the Court removes it from the realm of democratic decision. There will be consequences to shutting down the political process on an issue of such profound public significance. Closing debate tends to close minds. People denied a voice are less likely to accept the ruling of a court on an issue that does not seem to be the sort of thing courts usually decide. As a thoughtful commentator observed about another issue, “The political process was moving . . . , not swiftly enough for advocates of quick, complete change, but majoritarian institutions were listening and acting. Heavy-handed judicial intervention was difficult to justify and appears to have provoked, not resolved, conflict.” Ginsburg, Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade, 63 N. C. L. Rev. 375, 385–386 (1985) (footnote omitted). Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause. And they lose this just when the winds of change were freshening at their backs.
Federal courts are blunt instruments when it comes to creating rights. They have constitutional power only to resolve concrete cases or controversies; they do not have the flexibility of legislatures to address concerns of parties not before the court or to anticipate problems that may arise from the exercise of a new right. Today’s decision, for example, creates serious questions about religious liberty. Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is—unlike the right imagined by the majority—actually spelled out in the Constitution. Amdt. 1.
Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every State that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice. The majority’s decision imposing same-sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations. The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage.Ante, at 27. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.
Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. See Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 36–38. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.
Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of today’s decision is the extent to which the majority feels compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate. The majority offers a cursory assurance that it does not intend to disparage people who, as a matter of conscience, cannot accept same-sex marriage. Ante, at 19. That disclaimer is hard to square with the very next sentence, in which the majority explains that “the necessary consequence” of laws codifying the traditional definition of marriage is to “demea[n] or stigmatiz[e]” same-sex couples. Ante, at 19. The majority reiterates such characterizations over and over. By the majority’s account, Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history—in particular, the tens of millions of people who voted to reaffirm their States’ enduring definition of marriage—have acted to “lock . . . out,” “disparage,” “disrespect and subordinate,” and inflict “[d]ignitary wounds” upon their gay and lesbian neighbors. Ante, at 17, 19, 22, 25. These apparent assaults on the character of fairminded people will have an effect, in society and in court. See post, at 6–7 (Alito, J., dissenting). Moreover, they are entirely gratuitous. It is one thing for the majority to conclude that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage; it is something else to portray everyone who does not share the majority’s “better informed understanding” as bigoted.Ante, at 19.
In the face of all this, a much different view of the Court’s role is possible. That view is more modest and restrained. It is more skeptical that the legal abilities of judges also reflect insight into moral and philosophical issues. It is more sensitive to the fact that judges are unelected and unaccountable, and that the legitimacy of their power depends on confining it to the exercise of legal judgment. It is more attuned to the lessons of history, and what it has meant for the country and Court when Justices have exceeded their proper bounds. And it is less pretentious than to suppose that while people around the world have viewed an institution in a particular way for thousands of years, the present generation and the present Court are the ones chosen to burst the bonds of that history and tradition.
* * *
If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.
I respectfully dissent.
Contributors and Attributions
- Authored by: US Government. Located at: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/576/14-556/dissent4.html. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright