Arguments on Marriage Equality, Part 1

by Bob Schwartz

Supreme Court
The audio and transcript of the Supreme Court arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Proposition 8 marriage equality case, are now available.

Without video, the best way to review these is to read and listen to them at the same time. Otherwise, you may not know which Justice is talking—though some of them have such distinctive voices, styles or insights that they are instantly recognizable. Hint: Justice Clarence Thomas is the one who is not talking; he never does.

The news channels deal with the lack of video (not permitted) by playing the audio, identifying the speaker on screen, and showing an artist’s sketch. You can do this yourself, creatively if you want. You might use a photo instead of a sketch, or you can just select a random picture of another distinguished Justice or lawyer, present or past.

The odds of correctly predicting outcomes in difficult Supreme Court cases like this are better than winning the Powerball lottery or picking all the NCAA brackets right, but not much. So here are some first impressions.


The path of this case is complicated. The California Supreme Court enabled same-sex marriage and for a few months couples did marry. Almost immediately, a group sponsored an initiative to reverse that decision by banning same-sex marriage in the state. The initiative passed, but the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, thus allowing same-sex marriage to proceed. The sponsor of the initiative appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

That is where the standing issue comes in. The State of California refused to appeal the overturning of the initiative. This left the initiative sponsor as the closest thing to an interested party for purposes of appeal.

But maybe not legally close enough. The Supreme Court did agree to hear the case, but now appears to wonder whether the proponents of the initiative have legal standing to have brought the appeal in the first place. The Court is free at this point to reconsider the question and rule that their initial agreement to hear the case was “improvidently granted.”

The Justices spent a substantial amount of time during arguments on this standing question. If standing is denied, the Court won’t be deciding any of the other issues. The appeal is over, the decision of the Ninth Circuit will stand, and same-sex marriage will once again be the law of California. There is some discussion that for the moment, the Court would like to narrow whatever they have to say about same-sex marriage to California, and let the legal questions mature. If they don’t have to say anything, that narrowing takes place automatically.

How likely is that? If this was the only same-sex marriage case before the Court this term, it would be an easier route for them to take. It would allow more cases to move up the appeal chain, more Courts of Appeal to be heard from.

But it isn’t the only case like it this term, or even this week. Today the Court will consider the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton in 1996. DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, which among other things means that same-sex spouses enjoy no federal benefits. (This has proved to be an embarrassment for Democrats. Scores of Senators and Representatives submitted a brief in which they apologized for being wrong, and Bill Clinton has done the same thing in a recent op-ed piece.)


Charles Cooper is the attorney representing the proponents of Proposition 8. Good lawyers get stuck with bad positions in tough cases, and this is that.

The primary argument for the constitutionality of a ban on same-sex marriage—aside from moral arguments, which are not legal ones—is that the tradition and essence and supreme societal value of marriage is procreation. You get married, above all, to have babies; if you can’t have babies, your right to marry is questionable or non-existent. Same-sex couples have no possibility of having children, at least the old-fashioned way (adoption being one of those modern, new-fangled techniques, like in vitro fertilization). Ergo, they have no right to marry.

The above is not hyperbole or sarcasm. For endless minutes, punctuated by occasional laughter, this is the argument that Cooper made, and that various Justices endorsed or, more frequently, questioned.

This part of the arguments has been widely covered, so there are no excerpts here. Listen and read for yourself. The discussion about the fertility of 55-year-old couples and of Strom Thurmond are worth the price of admission.

“The Experiment”

There was discussion of same-sex marriage being some sort of “experiment.” We supposedly have to wait for “scientific evidence” and “data” to determine how well it works.

The discussion of procreation was sad but silly, leavened by laughter. On this point, it is hard to laugh.

For the record, if marriage of any kind is an experiment, the results are in. Sometimes it goes blissfully right, sometimes it goes horribly wrong. Sometimes the children—who arrive in all sorts of ways and are raised in all sorts of permutations—turn out well, and once in a while they don’t. Some people like to go wild with the experiment, trying serial marriage and divorce (and marriage and divorce and marriage and divorce). It’s not an experiment for any of these couples. It’s just marriage. It’s life. It’s love. It’s being human connected.

Justice Antonin Scalia

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