Initial Thoughts on the Prop 8 Decision

The 9th Circuit published its opinion in Perry v. Brown today, with a 2-1 majority opinion by Reinhardt upholding the overturning of Proposition 8 on the narrowest possible grounds, and a dissenting opinion from Judge Smith — an outcome that pretty much no one is surprised by.

But even if it’s not a surprising outcome, I am still relieved the decision did end up being as narrow a holding as could be managed. But the majority knew what it was doing, of course, and it did its best to carefully shoehorn Perry into the precedent set down in Romer v. Evans. If gay marriage absolutely has to go in front of the Supreme Court, well, then I guess I’m glad it’s going to be in the context of the 9th Circuit’s opinion here, rather than a potentially more damaging vehicle.

I did end up being pleasantly surprised and impressed by Judge Smith’s dissenting opinion, and I agreed with many of his points over those of the majority far more often than I would have expected. It was certainly more faithful to the concept of rational basis review, anyway, and if it weren’t for two of its ultimate conclusions, I might’ve agreed overall with the dissent’s holding rather than the majority’s.

But there is no possible way I could ever accept the Proponent’s argument that “gay marriage should be banned because because only straight people can get accidentally knocked up, and straight people that accidentally get knocked up might not want to get married if those gay people who can’t accidentally get knocked up are allowed to get married too” with anything resembling a straight face, prior 14th Amendment jurisprudence be damned. Smith’s version of rational basis review would require that courts accept this argument, on the grounds that the government is permitted to (1) use irrational animus as a means of carrying out (2) policies that have no coherent content beyond an empty sound bite. And that’s two bridges too far, for me.

As for the first point, Smith’s footnote 8 does try to distinguish Palmore v. Sidoti by claiming that animus is only prohibited as a means of carrying out a law where that means is based upon creating a suspect classification. But if animus is banned as an end in all cases — rational basis through strict scrutiny — then what could possibly be the constitutional argument for banning animus as a means only in the case of strict scrutiny, but permitting it in all other circumstances?

And for the second point, Smith may be on firmer constitutional standing. But whatever precedent may be, I can’t go along with the argument that a law counts as being “rationally related” to an alleged purpose just so long as a grammatically correct sentence can be formulated which purports to support that claim. When it comes to rational basis review, yes, courts are required to accept a very hefty does of harebrained legislative ideas, no matter how stupid or ridiculous those ideas might be in practice — but even the most properly deferential court should not be required to accept an argument that is, as the majority put it, lacking any basis “on which th[e] argument [c]ould be even conceivably plausible.”

So even if I am skeptical of the strategic soundness of forcing a gay rights case through the courts now, I ultimately agree with the legal analysis of the majority’s opinion. No, it’s not perfectly faithful to past models of rational basis review. But if anything, Perry v. Brown is just another chip off of the slowly eroding concept of strictly tiered classifications under the Fourteenth Amendment. The current law school outline version of the law, which places everything that’s not currently an announced suspect or quasi-suspect class into the same rational basis bucket, just doesn’t match the reality of what is happening in the courts and in society at large. After all, we’ve had, what, two cases before the Supreme Court now, in which a law has been challenged on the basis that it was motivated solely by animus against gay people? And after Perry, it’ll be three. In the context of Supreme Court cases which challenged legislative enactments based on animus towards a specific group, that’s a pretty high number.

And with that kind of pedigree, it’s hard to justify the claim that “homosexuals” is not a class that has been repeatedly subjected to improper legislative discrimination — and even if its not legally recognized as such under the Court’s current classification scheme, as a practical matter, it is plain that a law that makes a distinction on the basis of sexual orientation is one that that warrants an extra dose of skepticism from the judiciary.

-Susan

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