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The Prop 8 Decision: What is a Constitution For?

William N. Eskridge, Jr. and Darren R. Spedale are the authors of Gay Marriage: For Better or For Worse? What We’ve Learned from the Evidence. Eskridge is the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at the Yale Law School. Spedale spent two years on a Fulbright Fellowship in Denmark researching Scandinavian same-sex partnerships. He received his J.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Stanford University, and continues his work on same-sex marriage through his pro bono activities.  Here, they comment on the recent decision by the California Supreme Court to uphold Prop 8.

The California Supreme Court’s decision upholding Proposition 8 will be analyzed as a referendum on gay marriage. That would be a mistake. There are much higher stakes in the case. At bottom, it posed the question, What is a Constitution for? The Justices did not address that issue explicitly, but their action spoke volumes.

Prop 8’s ratification by the voters in the 2008 election overrode the Court’s earlier decision invalidating the state’s marriage exclusion of lesbian and gay couples. Lesbian and gay couples challenged Prop 8 as an “unconstitutional constitutional amendment.” Their argument, rejected by the Court, was that Prop 8’s fundamental change in minority rights should have gone through the more deliberative process for constitutional “revisions.” California Attorney General Jerry Brown made a similar argument, that a Constitution cannot be amended to retract “inalienable” rights.

At war in the Prop 8 case were two competing visions of what a Constitution is for. Representing the supporters of Prop 8, former Judge Kenneth Starr argued that a Constitution (or at least the California one) is an expression of the values held by the citizenry. To use Aristotle’s language, the Constitution is the “soul of the city.” Modernizing Aristotle, California provides its citizens with formal opportunities to express their constitutional commitments, through popular initiatives. Once the voters had spoken, the Court itself would have been engaging in unconstitutional usurpation if it had insisted on same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Brown and Shannon Minter (representing the challengers) argued that a Constitution demands more from the democratic process. Inspired by John Locke, their constitutional assumption is that the constitution is a social contract that guarantees basic rights to everyone. The Declaration of Independence called them “inalienable rights,” which means that even the Constitution cannot take them away without risking dissolution of the social contract. Because the Court itself had in 2008 held that marriage was a fundamental, inalienable right for lesbian and gay couples, Brown and Minter maintained that Proposition 8 was a constitutional betrayal.

A superficial reading of the Court’s opinion suggests that Starr prevailed. The Court upheld Prop 8, consistent with Starr’s democratic updating of Aristotle. But the Court rejected Starr’s argument that Prop 8 nullified the estimated 18,000 same-sex marriages performed between June 15 and November 8, 2008. The effect of the Court’s interpretation is to recognize those marriages, consistent with Brown and Minter’s stance in the litigation.

What is one to make of this Solomonic resolution? It may have been politically motivated, splitting the baby so that neither side would feel disrespected, on an issue that evenly divides the citizenry. It may been motivated purely by rule of law considerations. The Court would have had to stretch its precedents to strike down Prop 8, but the well-established canon against retroactive application of new amendments provided a legally hard-to-question rationale for narrowly interpreting Prop 8.

In our view, the Court was operating, at least in part, under a third understanding of what a Constitution is for. Constitutions establish processes for deliberation about important policies and values we should commit ourselves to. A Deliberative Constitution keeps the channels of political discussion open, insists that representative bodies be accountable to the people, and from time to time nudges the political process.

This is probably what the Court was up to. On the one hand, the Justices were persuaded that citizens were not settled in the gay marriage debate. Even as it allowed Prop 8, the Court reminded voters that a future initiative could overturn its rule. The Court was channeling both supporters and opponents of gay marriage back to the persuasive process; judges would not decide the issue for the people.

On the other hand, the Justices gave a nudge to that deliberation by validating the existing gay marriages. This provided an opportunity for gay marriage supporters to falsify stereotypes of gay people as anti-family. (The biggest anti-gay trope, and one exploited during the Prop 8 campaign, is that rights for gay people will corrupt children.) These lesbian and gay married families might also put to the test traditionalist arguments that gay marriage is bad for the community.

Gay marriage will still come to California, through a future initiative rather than a judicial decision. As we argued in our recent book, the new wave of marriage recognition has been coming in state legislatures (Vermont and Maine, with others to come).

Recent Comments

  1. fern

    After the oral argument my feelings where that the SC would do all it legally could to side with the no on 8. The ability to amend the constitution is a great freedom. The only problem is that the yes on 8 were in a dirty tricks campaign lying and misleading voters, using religion as a main argument, using churches to prep the voters. This is where I wonder whether the voters are mature enough to fully understand their actions and their vote, do they deserve this freedom?

  2. Chuck Davis

    The children angle is always troubling. I’ve heard the answer back, but not loud enough. If gay marriage and same sex exposure is so troubling, then why didn’t the opposite effect occur with we gay/lesbian children? I mean, we were given a heavy dose of hetero growing up, some of us even bought it and attempted hetero lives only to create disruption for others due to our internal (and external) lies about who we are. That damage is out there, the damage to us as individual who were told by society that we’re not supposed to be who we are, and the damage on the ones we married, had children with, extended families and loved ones. I for one would have appreciated knowing so long ago that there are people who are inclined to lives their own sex, it is a small segment of the population but an “ordinary” one. I hope my three sons feel that they are open to find out who they are. I abhor those who ask them to do what 1960’s and 1970’s society taught me – pretend to be something else. You are not welcome here. Well, I am here, and I have to teach my kids that Dad is OK despite what everyone says, what a nominal voter majority says(not even total, just those who bothered to vote). I guess they all know what’s better for my kids than I do anyway, right?

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