Mississippi Judge Striking Down Marriage Ban Explains the Role of Courts

Among the many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving are our fundamental constitutional rights and the principled federal judges who make sure those rights are vindicated, even when popular majorities disagree. Judge Carlton Reeves reminded us of that yesterday in his ruling striking down Mississippi's ban that prevented gays and lesbians from marrying.

Judge Reeves has written a thorough opinion that respectfully considers all the arguments put forth by opponents of marriage equality and carefully explains why the marriage ban, popular as it may be in Mississippi, violates both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. At 72 pages, it is well worth reading if you want to see our Constitution and our federal court system at their best.

Among the many highlights is Judge Reeves's response to those who say the issue of marriage equality should be resolved in the political branches rather than through the courts. This is the position recently taken by the Sixth Circuit in a highly flawed opinion written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton. Judge Reeves explains:

In upholding four states' same-sex marriage bans, [the Sixth Circuit] expressed optimism that voters would change their minds on same-sex marriage, and argued that the courts should give them that opportunity. As that court wrote, "from the claimants' perspective, we have an eleven-year record marked by nearly as many successes as defeats and a widely held assumption that the future holds more promise than the past—if the federal courts will allow that future to take hold." (emphasis added).

The undersigned sees the judicial role differently. The courts do not wait out the political process when constitutional rights are being violated, especially when the political process caused the constitutional violations in the first place. The framers did not set up Article III to yield to "the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." The Federalist No. 10. By honoring its obligation conferred by Article III [of the Constitution], the court does not diminish the political process. Rather, the court holds fast to the fundamental belief that constitutional principles that safeguard liberty and guarantee equality are not subject to the ballot. [footnote and internal citations removed]

Judge Reeves also provides an important historical context and the role courts have played in fulfilling the promises of our Constitution:

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, a state may not "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. Although this text has not changed in nearly 150 years, our understanding of it has changed dramatically. Before turning to today's issue, then, it is worth considering some of those historical changes.

He then cites Supreme Court cases interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment to allow racial segregation, the blanket exclusion of women from practicing law, the criminalization of consensual sex between two men in their own home:

These are just a few examples. There are others. Even an abbreviated history shows that millions of Americans were once deemed ineligible for full Fourteenth Amendment protection. But we now take for granted that racial discrimination is wrong, that women cannot be excluded from the professions, and that gay and lesbian citizens are entitled to the same privacy in their sex lives that heterosexual citizens enjoy. We changed. These issues have faded into the background of everyday life.

The judiciary plays a unique role in this process. The above cases were not put to a vote of the American people. The votes had already been counted; the legislatures had already acted. Most voters thought nothing wrong with the status quo, unconstitutional as it may be.

This was always a risk of our representative democracy. James Madison wrote that "measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." The Federalist No. 10. He and his colleagues "knew times can blind us to certain truths." Lawrence [v. Texas], 539 U.S. at 579. Mistakes would be made.

In their wisdom, though, they created a co-equal branch of government where aggrieved persons could try to show "that the laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress." Id. The judiciary has been charged with hearing these claims for more than two centuries. The will of the majority is usually affirmed. Every now and then, however, the majority has done an injustice to a person's rights, and the case must be resolved in his or her favor.

Judge Reeves, who was nominated to the bench by President Obama, explains well the importance of our nation's federal courts, while also demonstrating how important it is who serves on those courts.

PFAW Foundation