Evolving Traditions

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband. … The husband also (by the old law) might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehavior, the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his servants or children.

– Sir William Blackstone
Commentaries on the Laws of England (1769)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Proposition 8 is Unconstitutional. The trial record may be as important as the ruling. If same-sex-marriage opponents think there’s so much “evidence” supporting their position, why didn’t they present any?
  • The Sift Bookshelf: The Living Constitution. An easy-to-read new book explains how interpretations of the Constitution legitimately change with time.
  • Ground Zero Mosque, Part II. “Opposing” the mosque can mean two very different things, but not many mosque opponents are making the distinction clear.
  • Short Notes. What Fox thinks of the 14th Amendment. China takes on bold new infrastructure projects, while we let things fall apart. Superman saves a home in the real world. A suggestion for protesting the Tea Party. Civil disobedience in Arizona. And where you can hear me next Sunday.

Proposition 8 is Unconstitutional

Every few months, it seems, the saga of same-sex marriage in California takes another twist or turn. Since the voters passed Proposition 22 ten years ago, there have been votes by the legislature, vetoes by the governor, civil disobedience by the City of San Francisco, a second referendum passing a constitutional amendment, and countless trips up and down the state court system.

By May, 2009, things had gone as far as they could at the state level: The voters had passed Proposition 8, which wrote one-man-one-woman into the state constitution, and the California Supreme Court had recognized its validity (while still upholding the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed prior to Prop 8).

At that point a liberal/conservative all-star team of lawyers decided to take the argument federal. Ted Olson and David Boies, who had been the opposing lawyers in Bush v. Gore, filed suit in federal court to have Prop 8 declared unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection of the laws” and “due process of law” to everyone.

Wednesday they succeeded in their first step: Judge Vaughn Walker declared Prop 8 unconstitutional. (Judge Walker’s ruling is long, but easy to read.)

As I explained last month after the Defense of Marriage Act was declared unconstitutional, just about all same-sex-marriage decisions hang on the same question: Laws that treat one group of people differently from another have to pass the rational basis test, which asks whether the law is “rationally related to furthering a legitimate government interest”. Can a law banning same-sex marriage pass that test? What legitimate government interest is furthered by treating same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples?

This is why court decisions often come out differently than referenda: Voters don’t have to answer that question. As Judge Walker put it:

The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose.

The secular logic of Prop 8 hangs on some real-world questions about the institution of marriage, its effects on children, the nature of homosexuality, and so on. So Judge Walker held a trial to gather testimony on those issues.

Evidence-based knowledge vs. faith-based knowledge. Boies and Olson called a series of expert witnesses: historians to describe the long-term evolution in American marriage laws (allowing wives to own property, allowing interracial marriage, etc.) and the history of discrimination against homosexuals; demographers to compare same-sex couples to opposite-sex couples (they’re not that different); economists to assess the impact of Prop 8 on the City of San Francisco (negative) and on same-sex couples and their children (also negative); social scientists to assess the affects of social stigma on gays and lesbians (bad), the impact of seven years of same-sex marriage on family issues in Massachusetts (negligible), and how children raised by same-sex couples compare to those raised by opposite-sex couples (not much difference); psychologists to discuss whether therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation (it can’t) and whether same-sex couples receive the same psychological benefits from marriage as opposite-sex couples (they do), and so on.

In other words, every question a reasonable person would ask about the impact of Prop 8 was answered by a professor of some relevant subject with peer-reviewed publications in the field, who cited actual research on the topic.

The defenders of Prop 8 did nothing of the kind. (The name of the case is Perry v. Schwarzenegger, but although California officials like Gov. Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Brown were named in the suit, they wanted no part of defending Prop 8. So the job passed to the people who got Prop 8 on the ballot in the first place.) They announced a number of expert witnesses, but only called two of them to the stand — neither of whom was actually in expert in what he was testifying about, and one of whom, David Blankenhorn, doesn’t seem to be an expert in much of anything. (This section of Judge Walker’s opinion is a good primer on the legal definition of expert witness.) Rachel Maddow spent an entire segment of her show Wednesday making fun of Blankenhorn’s “expertise”.

WaPo’s Jonathan Capehart commented:

if I were the conservatives I would troop back into court — and sue the pro-Prop 8 attorneys for malpractice.

Here’s an example from Judge Walker’s decison:

At oral argument on proponents’ motion for summary judgment, the court posed to proponents’ counsel the assumption that “the state’s interest in marriage is procreative” and inquired how permitting same-sex marriage impairs or adversely affects that interest. Counsel replied that the inquiry was “not the legally relevant question,” but when pressed for an answer, counsel replied: “Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.”

The impression the trial leaves — and this may have political implications even if the ruling is overturned by the Supreme Court — is that the logic of banning same-sex marriage is all 30-second sound bites and won’t stand up to scrutiny. The Religious Right may claim that there is massive evidence ( James Dobson has claimed “more than ten thousand studies“) relating same-sex marriage to dire outcomes for society, but when they had a chance to present their evidence in court, they folded.

As David Boies said on Face the Nation (in response to Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council):

It’s easy to sit around and … cite studies that either don’t exist or don’t say what you say they do. … But when they come into court and they have to support those opinions and they have to defend those opinions under oath and cross-examination, those opinions just melt away. And that’s what happened here. There simply wasn’t any evidence, there weren’t any of those studies. There weren’t any empirical studies. That’s just made up. That’s junk science. It’s easy to say that on television. But a witness stand is a lonely place to lie. And when you come into court you can’t do that.

This case may affect the overall national discussion in the same way that the Dover intelligent design case did. After a court show-down in which one side has no real evidence to present, it’s hard for the media to go back to he-said-she-said coverage.

Marriage evolution. Testimony from the historians dismantled another standard talking point: That marriage has been one thing for thousands of years and now gay activists want to change it to something else.

To the extent that the phrase traditional marriage means anything at all, it refers to the kind of relationship this week’s Sift quote describes: domination of the wife by the husband. Through all of American history marriage has been slowly evolving away from that: allowing wives to own property; letting them sign contracts and accept employment without their husbands’ approval; protecting against domestic violence; recognizing marital rape; and so on.

As a result of that evolution, marriage laws no longer enforce separate gender roles. So the gender-specific titles of husband and wife no longer correspond to any legal rights or responsibilities not included in spouse.

Without that evolution — in the 18th-century world of Blackstone’s Commentaries — Prop 8 proponents would be right: Same-sex marriage makes no sense if the law requires a dominant male husband and a submissive female wife; two men or two women can’t do it.

But in marriage as it stands today (and how many people would really want to go back?) two men or two women can fulfill the legal roles of spouses as well as opposite-sex couples do. Laws that prevent them from doing so are relics of a system whose underlying logic was abandoned decades ago.

Impact. Ultimately this is headed for the Supreme Court, where (as Dahlia Lithwick explains) the case will be decided by Justice Kennedy, the Court’s swing vote.

If the Supreme Court reverses Judge Walker, the impact of would not be as great as some people seem to think. It would be harder for a future Supreme Court to find protection for same-sex marriage in the 14th amendment, but state legislatures could still recognize same-sex marriage and state courts could still find a same-sex couple’s right to marry in their state constitutions.

Rather than take on the evidence, most “family values” spokesmen attacked the judge: He’s gay. And all those professors of whatever who testified? They’re gay too. What more do you need to know?

While Boies does CBS, Olson is handling Fox.

Stephen Colbert sees Judge Walker’s decision as “Arma-gay-ddon“.

Humorist Andy Borowitz explains why most marriages are already gay:

“Soon after marrying, most men stop hitting on women and start shopping for furniture,” Dr. Logsdon said. “Scientifically speaking, how gay is that?”

I’m coming to like NYT’s conservative columnist Ross Douthat even though I seldom agree with him. He consistently offers something genuine to disagree about, and doesn’t just spout nonsense and make stuff up.

The Sift Bookshelf: The Living Constitution

The Living Constitution by David Strauss is the best popularization of constitutional law I have read. It is short (139 pages of 300-350 words each), readable, and well organized. Best of all, it does something important: debunks the theory of constitutional interpretation that you most commonly run across in the media (originalism) and provides an alternative that makes sense out of what the courts have been doing for the last 200-or-so years.

Let’s start with originalism. This theory says that the Founders had a definite idea in mind when they wrote each line of the Constitution, and that the role of a judge is to ascertain that idea and apply it to the case at hand. There are two problems with originalism: (1) it’s impossible to carry out; and (2) it violates Thomas Jefferson’s principle that the dead should not rule the living. (De-sound-biting that a little: The democratic principle of “the consent of the governed” doesn’t mean much if the consent was given once and for all in 1787.)

Strauss brings home the impossibility of knowing the Founders’ original intent by recalling what Americans went through in the 1970s around the Equal Rights Amendment. (The ERA was passed by Congress in 1972, but fell just short of ratification by 3/4 of the states, so it is not part of the Constitution now.)

If the ERA had passed, originalism would have future judges try to ascertain and apply what the people alive in the 1970s had “intended” by it. That’s laughable to anybody who lived through the 1970s, because to a very large extent we didn’t know. (I remember hearing long arguments about whether the ERA would force all bathrooms to be unisex.) Different people intended different things, and we couldn’t agree on what the ERA would mean even for the situations we could envision, much less situations that might arise in 200 years.

I know the founding generation was supposed to be full of giants, but were they really that much more self-aware than the Americans of 1972?

So, if we admit we can’t always find a well-defined meaning by recreating the mindset of 1787, how are we supposed follow the Constitution? Well, some things are obvious, like a president’s term lasting four years or senators needing to be 30 years old. But how “freedom of the press” applies to the Internet, or exactly what constitutes “abridging the freedom of speech” — now or in 1787 — requires some interpreting. How do we do it?

The defenders of originalism say that the only alternative is anarchy; the law will be whatever the current judge wants it to be, until he’s overruled by some other judge.

Strauss describes the alternative method of common law, a pre-constitutional process we inherit from England. Under common law, a judge considers how similar cases have been decided in the past. And if there’s still wiggle room, s/he resolves it by applying more abstract principles of justice, fairness, and common sense to the facts of the case at hand. For centuries, common law provided a workable legal system even in situations where there was no written law.

Strauss claims that this is in fact what our courts have been doing for the last two centuries: applying the text of the Constitution when it is clear (four-year presidential terms), consulting precedents to interpret provisions that are not clear (abridging freedom of speech), and attempting to resolve the remaining uncertainties with justice, fairness, and common sense.

A written constitution combined with a common-law method of interpretation produces a “living constitution” — one whose meaning evolves from generation to generation.

Strauss’ examples are the best part of the book. He devotes a chapter to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools. Half a century later, everybody likes the Brown decision. But it clearly violated originalism: Hardly anybody who voted for the 14th Amendment in 1868 thought they were voting for desegregation.

On the surface, Brown also violates common law, because it reverses a precedent rather than following it. The key precedent in this case isPlessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 decision saying that the 14th Amendment‘s promise of “the equal protection protection of the laws” can be satisfied by facilities that are “separate but equal”.

Looking deeper, though, Strauss shows that the 1954 Court was not just saying “Our moral values are better than the 1896 Court’s moral values.” He goes through a series of cases between 1896 and 1954 in which the Court tried to make separate-but-equal work. In case after case, it decided that the specific separate arrangements at hand (mostly concerning segregated law schools) were not equal. If you collected all those precedents, it became hard to imagine how to design racially separate facilities that the Court would consider equal.

So when the 1954 Court says that racially separate schools can’t be equal, it isn’t pulling that conclusion out of its own sensitive conscience. Instead, it’s amalgamating the conclusions of many specific cases decided since 1896, and coming up with an interpretive scheme that retroactively explains those decisions better than separate-but-equal did.

That’s how the common-law method works: You stick with an interpretation until the exceptions start to overwhelm the rule, and then you come up with a new interpretation that handles the exceptions better. It’s flexible enough to evolve through accumulated experience, but it’s not open to individual whim.

Ground Zero Mosque, Part II

Since I first wrote about the Ground Zero Mosque two weeks ago, more people and organizations have come out against it — bigots and right-wing extremists, of course, but also people who should know better like the Anti-Defamation LeagueJohn McCain, and the Wiesenthal Center.

Their statements all fudge an important issue: When you say you’re “against” the mosque, do you mean “I wish the people building it would reconsider” or do you mean “I want the government to stop them”? The first expresses sympathy for the people who feel insulted by the mosque; the second attacks religious freedom in America and sides with anti-Muslim bigots.

It’s important to be clear about this. Whenever a minority tries to exercise its rights, it’s going to be unpopular. In such a climate, announcing that you oppose their efforts is going to encourage bigotry, even if you claim that’s not your intention and even if you word your statement carefully. The headlines you generate are more important than your precise phrasing. The ADL should know that from its own experience battling anti-Semitism. (Some other Jewish groups have supported the mosque project.)

In response to the ADL’s statement, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria returned an award and honorarium the ADL gave him five years ago.

The poll showing that New Yorkers oppose the mosque fudges the same issue. The question asked was:

Do you support or oppose the proposal to build the Cordoba House, a 15 story Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan 2 blocks from the site of the World Trade Center?

I wonder if you could get the opposite result (“New Yorkers Support Mosque”) by asking Mayor Bloomberg’s question:

Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion?

Short Notes

It’s striking how much of this Sift revolves around the 14th Amendment, or, as Fox & Friends calls it, “the anchor baby amendment.

Here’s one way in which China has already replaced the United States as the leader of the world. A few decades ago, if you saw plans for some crazily futuristic public-works project, you knew it had to be in America. Now it has to be in China.

Check this out: Train-car-sized buses that use the same right-of-way as ordinary highways, but they sit up so high that cars drive under them. They’re like rolling overpasses. More artist-conception pictures here. Construction in Beijing is supposed to start later this year.

Meanwhile, our cities are turning off streetlights and breaking up roads because we’re not willing to pay taxes to maintain them.

In the real world, a family home facing foreclosure is not usually considered a job for Superman. Except this one time. A previously unexamined stack of old magazines in the basement turned out to include a copy of Superman’s debut comic, Action #1. It’s expected to bring $250,000 at auction.

Jesus’ General is normally a satirist, but he seems serious about this suggestion: Go to a September 12 Tea Party rally and burn a Confederate flag in protest.

The parts of Arizona’s immigration law that were not thrown out by the courts went into effect July 29. Resistance to the law has also begun.

If you happen to be near Bedford, Massachusetts around 10 a.m. next Sunday morning, come listen to me preach on “Spirituality and the Humanist” at First Parish Church.


The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com.

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  • […] you’ve read any of my posts on previous same-sex marriage decisions — going all the way back to the 2003 ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Court — you […]

  • By Where Are We on Citizens United? « The Weekly Sift on March 12, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    […] But the traditions of the Court itself work against such a plan. The doctrine of stare decisis requires the Court to respect the decisions of past courts unless and until they prove unworkable. “I wouldn’t have done that” is not a good enough reason to reverse a decision. That’s why major reversals (like Brown v Board of Education) are rare, and usually come after a long process of trying and failing to make the original decision work (as David Strauss explained in The Living Constitution). […]

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