Judge Martin Feldman, nominated to the Eastern District of Louisiana thirty years ago by President Reagan, today upheld that state's marriage ban against same-sex couples. But his opinion concluding that the ban is constitutional is hardly a model of rigorous and dispassionate legal or factual analysis.
Early in the opinion, he makes clear that he simply doesn't see gay and lesbian couples as anything at all like opposite-sex couples:
This national same-sex marriage struggle animates a clash between convictions regarding the value of state decisions reached by way of the democratic process as contrasted with personal, genuine, and sincere lifestyle choices recognition. (emphasis added)
This fundamental misunderstanding – reducing the love and commitment shared by lesbian and gay couples to nothing more than a simple "lifestyle choice" – colors his entire approach to the case.
In his Equal Protection analysis, he rules that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject only to the lowest-level, "rational basis" scrutiny. He gives two reasons. First, he cites higher court cases like Windsor that have avoided squarely answering that question, "despite opportunities to do so." Second, applying heightened scrutiny would "demean the democratic process." That's pretty circular reasoning, considering that heightened scrutiny exists in recognition that even democratically-enacted laws can violate a vulnerable group's Equal Protection rights.
His conclusion that the ban isn't sex discrimination is similarly flawed. Under the bans, your sex determines whether you can marry a particular person, playing the same role that race did in Loving v. Virginia. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected Virginia's argument that laws prohibiting interracial marriage did not trigger Equal Protection concerns because they applied to blacks and whites alike. Once the Court recognized that the law treated people differently based on their race, it followed standard Equal Protection analysis, striking down the law under the strict scrutiny that applies to racial discrimination. Other courts have recognized that bans against same-sex couples getting married similarly trigger Equal Protection concerns. In disagreeing with those courts, Judge Feldman rewrites Loving (and the Fourteenth Amendment):
Heightened scrutiny was warranted in Loving because the Fourteenth Amendment expressly condemns racial discrimination as a constitutional evil … [N]o analogy can defeat the plain reality that Louisiana's laws apply evenhandedly to both genders--whether between two men or two women. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Louisiana and is reasonably anchored to the democratic process. The Court is therefore satisfied that rational basis applies.
First off, the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't "expressly condemn racial discrimination" or even specifically mention race. Its ringing call for liberty and equality applies to "any person." Sorry, Judge Feldman, but that includes lesbians and gays.
Secondly, Feldman flips Loving on its head. Loving recognized that the state's marriage laws were subject to Equal Protection scrutiny despite, to use Feldman's formulation in this case, "the plain reality that [Virginia's] laws appl[ied] evenhandedly to both [races]." The Supreme Court didn't see through the ruse of "it applies to everyone" because of strict scrutiny; it used strict scrutiny because it saw through the ruse of "it applies to everyone."
Although other courts have struck down marriage bans under rational basis, Feldman upholds Louisiana's ban as related to the state's goals of linking children to their birth parents and managing social change through democratic consensus. He suggests that it could be struck down only if motivated solely by animus, which he rejects (although other courts have struck down the law under rational basis without a finding of animus). (The Supreme Court has held that animus against gays and lesbians is not a legitimate justification for a law.)
As for the Due Process claim, he sees the constitutional right at issue not as marriage, but as "same sex marriage." This is not surprising, since he doesn't see the couples before him as anything except people exercising and seeking approval of an alternative "lifestyle choice." And since there has not been a longstanding recognition of the right to "same sex marriage," he uses rational basis for the Due Process claim, and the couples before him lose again.
Toward the end of the opinion, Judge Feldman channels his inner Scalia, condemning judges who, like "philosopher kings," have ruled in favor of same-sex couples. He writes:
Perhaps in a new established point of view, marriage will be reduced to contract law, and, by contract, anyone will be able to claim marriage. … For example, must the states permit or recognize a marriage between an aunt and niece? Aunt and nephew? Brother/brother? Father and child?
That canard is so easily rejected. Can Judge Feldman really not come up with a single reason to ban child marriages or incestuous marriages that would not apply to marriages between unrelated adults of the same sex? Not one? The reasons for not letting a father marry his child really have nothing to do with the fact that one of the parties is a child, and that the other party is their father?
Judge Feldman was put in the bench back in 1983 by President Reagan. Our country was a much darker place for lesbians and gays then, and a ruling such as his would not have been surprising thirty years ago. But given the enormous changes in constitutional law that we have seen since then, Feldman's ruling is clearly a throwback to an earlier and less equal time.