Michigan Defense of Marriage Act Gets Affirmed in Federal Appeals Court

 The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned a March ruling from a federal judge who found Michigan's Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.

The case, brought by April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, a Hazel Park couple who sued the state because they can't jointly adopt their children, is now likely to move to the Supreme Court.

Two of three judges on the appeals court panel found that it should be lawmakers, not judges, who decide the issue.

In an opinion written by 6th Circuit Judge Sutton:

" This is a case about change—and how best to handle it under the United States Constitution.  From the vantage point of 2014, it would now seem, the question is not whether American law will allow gay couples to marry; it is when and how that will happen. That would not have seemed likely as recently as a dozen years ago.

For better, for worse, or for more of the same, marriage has long been a social institution defined by relationships between men and women. So long defined, the tradition is measured in millennia, not centuries or decades. So widely shared, the tradition until recently had been adopted by all governments and major religions of the world.

But things change, sometimes quickly. Since 2003, nineteen States and the District of Columbia have expanded the definition of marriage to include gay couples, some through state legislation, some through initiatives of the people, some through state court decisions, and some through the actions of state governors and attorneys general who opted not to appeal adverse court decisions.

Nor does this momentum show any signs of slowing. Twelve of the nineteen States that now recognize gay marriage did so in the last couple of years. On top of that, four federal courts of appeals have compelled several other States to permit same-sex marriages under the Fourteenth Amendment.

What remains is a debate about whether to allow the democratic processes begun in the States to continue in the four States of the Sixth Circuit or to end them now by requiring all States in the Circuit to extend the definition of marriage to encompass gay couples. Process and structure matter greatly in American government. Indeed, they may be the most reliable, liberty assuring guarantees of our system of government, requiring us to take seriously the route the United States Constitution contemplates for making such a fundamental change to such a fundamental social institution.

Of all the ways to resolve this question, one option is not available: a poll of the three judges on this panel, or for that matter all federal judges, about whether gay marriage is a good idea. Our judicial commissions did not come with such a sweeping grant of authority, one that would allow just three of us—just two of us in truth—to make such a vital policy call for the thirty-two million citizens who live within the four States of the Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

What we have authority to decide instead is a legal question:  Does the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit a State from defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman?

Through a mixture of common law decisions, statutes, and constitutional provisions, each State in the Sixth Circuit has long adhered to the traditional definition of marriage. Sixteen gay and lesbian couples claim that this definition violates their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The circumstances that gave rise to the challenges vary. Some involve a birth, others a death. Some involve concerns about property, taxes, and insurance, others death certificates and rights to visit a partner or partner’s child in the hospital. Some involve a couple’s effort to obtain a marriage license within their State, others an effort to achieve recognition of a marriage solemnized in another State. All seek dignity and respect, the same dignity and respect given to marriages between opposite-sex couples. And all come down to the same question: Who decides?

Is this a matter that the National Constitution commits to resolution by the federal courts or leaves to the less expedient, but usually reliable, work of the state democratic processes?

II. Does the Due Process Clause or the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth

Amendment require States to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples?

A federal court of appeals begins by asking what the Supreme Court’s precedents require on the topic at hand. Just such a precedent confronts us. 

In the early 1970s, a Methodist minister married Richard Baker and James McConnell in Minnesota. Afterwards, they sought a marriage license from the State. When the clerk of the state court denied the request, the couple filed a lawsuit claiming that the denial of their request violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected both claims. As for the due process claim, the state court reasoned: "The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the book of Genesis. . . . This historic institution manifestly is more deeply founded than the asserted contemporary concept of marriage and societal interests for which petitioners contend. The due process clause . . . is not a charter for restructuring it by judicial legislation." 

As for the equal protection claim, the court reasoned: "[T]he state’s classification of persons authorized to marry" does not create an "irrational or invidious discrimination. . . . [T]hat the state does not impose upon heterosexual married couples a condition that they have a proved capacity or declared willingness to procreate . . . [creates only a] theoretically imperfect [classification] . . . [and] ‘abstract symmetry’ is not demanded by the Fourteenth Amendment."   

The Supreme Court’s decision four years earlier which invalidated Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages, did not change this conclusion. "[I]n commonsense and in a constitutional sense," the state court explained, "there is a clear distinction between a marital restriction based merely upon race and one based upon the fundamental difference in sex.

Baker and McConnell appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Court rejected their challenge, issuing a one-line order stating that the appeal did not raise "a substantial federal question." This type of summary decision, it is true, does not bind the Supreme Court in later cases. But it does confine lower federal courts in later cases. It matters not whether we think the decision was right in its time, remains right today, or will be followed by the Court in the future. Only the Supreme Court may overrule its own precedents, and we remain bound even by its summary decisions "until such time as the Court informs [us] that [we] are not."

The Court has yet to inform us that we are not, and we have no license to

engage in a guessing game about whether the Court will change its mind or, more aggressively, to assume authority to overrule Baker ourselves

This case ultimately presents two ways to think about change. One is whether the Supreme Court will constitutionalize a new definition of marriage to meet new policy views about the issue. The other is whether the Court will begin to undertake a different form of change—change in the way we as a country optimize the handling of efforts to address requests for new civil liberties.

If the Court takes the first approach, it may resolve the issue for good and give the plaintiffs and many others relief. But we will never know what might have been. If the Court takes the second approach, is it not possible that the traditional arbiters of change—the people— will meet today’s challenge admirably and settle the issue in a productive way?

In just eleven years, nineteen States and a conspicuous District, accounting for nearly forty-five percent of the population, have exercised their sovereign powers to expand a definition of marriage that until recently was universally followed going back to the earliest days of human history. That is a difficult timeline to criticize as unworthy of further debate and voting. When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers.

Better in this instance, we think, to allow change through the customary political processes, in which the people, gay and straight alike, become the heroes of their own stories by meeting each other not as adversaries in a court system but as fellow citizens seeking to resolve a new social issue in a fair-minded way.

For these reasons, we reverse."

The dissenting judge's opinion is about midway through the opinion, touting a stronger response from the judicial branch at the appeals court level.  Do you believe that the appeals court made the right decision?  What are your thoughts on the topic?

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The charge of "intolerance" is often leveled against the people who want marriage to retain its traditionally accepted definition by the activists for gay marriage.  But isn't it intolerant of them to want to thrust their restructured definition of marriage, unheard of and untried for thousands of years of civilization, unto the rest of us?

Good points all. Intolerance is one of the leftists buzz words, like sustainable or green.


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