At least in legal academic circles, most of the sturm und drang generated by Perry v. Brown has resulted from disagreement about whether Proposition 8 can legitimately be struck down under the exceedingly deferential rational basis review that, ostensibly, the 9th Circuit applied in deciding the case.
But rational basis review is the funhouse mirror standard for evaluating the constitutional permissibility of legislation. Courts do not actually analyze reality, the world as it actually exists, when analyzing a specific case under rational review. Instead, while implementing a steadfast suspension of disbelief, the court is analyzing a legal fiction. Rational basis review requires the court to squint sidelong at the challenged legislation, and pretending to believe in the white lies and polite excuses provided by the State in its defense. So long as the resulting revisionist version of the law that the court comes up with is not itself offensive to the Constitution, then the court will pay no mind to the man behind the curtain.
So could the 9th Circuit correctly claim that Proposition 8 doesn’t meet even this lenient standard for constitutionality? Probably not. Even though all of the arguments in favor of Prop 8 are — objectively speaking, mind you — entirely asinine, a hefty dose of absurdity has never been a bar to legislation passing muster under rational basis review.
But it’s difficult to place the blame on the 9th for deviating from some idealized “true” rational basis standard when the Supreme Court has repeatedly indicated that we are no longer playing by that same rulebook. “True” rational basis is still applied today to abstract economic or administrative regulations, it is not a dead letter in all respects, but it hasn’t been applied to an intimate associations case since around the time of Bowers v. Hardwick.
There are a number ways in which the Supreme Court could choose to synthesize the line of cases leading up to Perry. The most obvious and straightforward method would be to simply go ahead and recognize sexual orientation as a quasi-suspect class, full stop. But that is not a politically feasible outcome, nor would it necessarily result in the fullest integration of existing precedent.
Looking from Skinner to Griswold, to Eisenstadt, Tremble, Moreno, Lawrence, and now Perry, the formulation that I would suggest is this: there is no legitimate state interest in imposing disabilities on individuals that are members of non-traditional family arrangements because they are members of non-traditional family arrangements. Whether interpreted as recognition of a broadly defined quasi-suspect class or as a fundamental right to be free from illegitimate interference with the choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, the result would be the same. While applying something well below a strict scrutiny evaluation, the U.S. Supreme Court has nevertheless repeatedly recognized that legislation which singles out “non-traditional” family structures for disfavored legal status cannot be rationally based upon (1) the State’s unsupported assertion that the family arrangement it is endorsing is preferable because of the arrangement’s ‘traditional’ character or inherent moral superiority; or (2) a marginal benefit to a legitimate objective that, either due to the de minimis amount of the benefit or its dubious probability, is so disproportionate with the scope of the harm imposed on the disfavored family structure as to compel the conclusion that the surmised benefit is not the actual purpose of the law.
In other words, a summary of the Court’s prior case law in this area it looks a fair bit like Perry.
But this is by no means limited to the question of same-sex marriage. The protections applied in Perry are equally applicable to protections enjoyed by heterosexual couples, even if for political reasons it is gays and lesbians that are more often the target of infringing legislation. If rational basis review were truly applicable to legislation in this realm, however, the State would have broad powers to eliminate or prohibit any union it thought not ideal, gay or straight, so long as the prohibition was not based on a class protected by strict scrutiny.
Consider a situation in which the State has enacted a law known as “the Homemaker Act,” which mandates that, henceforth, in order for any marriage to be recognized, or continue to be granted recognition, one partner must act as the primary caretaker of the home while the other partner is the breadwinner. The law would not make any distinctions based on gender — it doesn’t matter whether the wife or the husband stays home to tend the hearth, as long as someone does.
Is there any reason, under the arguments advanced by Prop 8 proponents, that such a law could be constitutionally invalidated? Not that I can see.
After all, this is a well established traditional conception of marriage. The purpose of marriage is to permit couples to engage in an efficient division of labor while assuring a certain minimum degree of security to all parties involved, so that a married couple can have one parent stay home and personally raise children — which is the optimal environment for a child to be raised in — instead of shipping the kids off to day-care to be raised by strangers. By making the working spouse obligated to support the non-working spouse for life, the non-working spouse will have sufficient assurance of future support to be able to forgo any ability of generating income for themselves, and is able to focus all efforts on raising children without the risk of being left destitute. Marriage exists because a spouse that stays home to raise children is thereby put in an extremely vulnerable position — one which the state has mitigated through the series of legal obligations known as marriage.
In other words, if you are in an intimate personal relationship with another person, but both parties are working, you have absolutely no need for the protections offered by marriage. The State has no interest in legally recognizing a couple where both parties have adequate incomes so that neither is reliant upon the other. Although it’s true that dual-income couples can and do reproduce, because neither party has been made financially vulnerable by the arrangement, marriage does not provide any additional benefit to the couple’s ability to raise children, and it is unnecessary to grant privileges where it will do nothing to support the State’s objectives. Moreover, because of “the state’s legitimate interest in promoting the family structure that has proven most likely to foster an optimal environment for the rearing of children,” as one Amici in Perry put it, the State can offer incentives to couples that have adopted this ideal family structure — which are the only couples that benefit from this incentive anyway — while denying it to couples that are not providing the ideal family structure. Allowing all couples to get married would, after all, undermine the social understanding of marriage as an enterprise dedicated to the rearing of children.
Although a hypothetical Homemaker Act would be politically unfeasible at the present time, the sentiments behind it would undoubtedly have been endorsed by prior generations. And it wouldn’t be hard to find a modern politician or two that would endorse a more limited version of such an enactment. Rick Santorum has, in fact, already gone on the record advocating that the government should discourage two-income households:
In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don’t both need to.
What happened in America so that mothers and fathers who leave their children in the care of someone else — or worse yet, home alone after school between three and six in the afternoon — find themselves more affirmed by society? Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism…
Sadly the propaganda campaign launched in the 1960s has taken root. The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness.
The enactment of a much diluted version of the Homemaker Act — one with the same goals although lesser penalties — is not inconceivable. And it would pass constitutional muster under a “true” rational basis review, as it is rationally related to an objective that has been repeatedly declared to be legitimate. All of the arguments that were advanced by the Prop 8 proponents would apply equally in this circumstance, resulting in the conclusion that a mandatory-homemaker statute is a valid, constitutional enactment, because it is based upon traditional notions of marriage and is rationally related to the State’s interest in promoting the optimal family structure for the upbringing of children.
Although it would pass rational basis review, such a law would be a deep infringement upon the right of private association. Luckily, for close to two decades now, rational basis review has been applied to laws like Proposition 8 or the Homemaker Act in name only — and, in practice, the courts have consistently recognized stronger protections for laws that infringe upon private family relationships.