Friday, June 1, 2007

Gay Marriage & Court Deference to the Legislature

A March 2007 article from Stateline has assessed gay marriage cases in California, Connecticut, and Maryland as "ripe for decision." The legal background of these states regarding same-sex legislation is rather mixed, so it will be interesting to see what the courts in each state decide. Connecticut has a law allowing for civil unions. The California state legislature approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. Maryland has not passed any legislation allowing legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

Today, New Hampshire passed a
bill allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. It is the fourth state to join Vermont, Connecticut, and New Jersey in offering benefits equal to that of marriage (but without calling the union marriage). Over the last two years it appears that the country has grown increasingly aware and accepting of same-sex relationships. The backlash created by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts appears to have subsided. Amendments banning same-sex marriage have begun to pass with lower margins of victory. In fact, Arizona rejected one such amendment in the 2006 midterm elections.

In granting same-sex couples a judicial victory the courts from California, Connecticut, and Maryland should remember the backlash caused right after both the Hawaii Supreme Court decision in 1993 and the MA SJC decision in 2003. The Hawaii decision prompted Congress to pass the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The MA SJC decision pushed President Bush to call for the Federal Marriage Amendment and incited 11 states to pass constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

What should also be noted by these courts is that court decisions in favor of same-sex marriage did not always garner a negative reaction. When other state courts have deferred to the legislature to create a legal remedy in favor of same-sex couples, this type of deference has led to long term gains for same-sex couples without the backlash. The cases in Vermont and in New Jersey are illustrative. There were no federal pieces of legislation passed against same-sex marriage or president's going on a crusade against same-sex unions.

Only time will tell what strategies these courts choose, but it will be interesting to see whether the turbulent history that same-sex marriage has had with courts is taken into consideration by judges authoring the upcoming decisions.

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