United States v. Windsor - 12-307 (2013)
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
UNITED STATES, PETITIONER v. EDITH SCHLAIN WINDSOR, in her capacity as executor of the ESTATE OF THEA CLARA SPYER, et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit
[June 26, 2013]
Justice Alito, with whom Justice Thomas joins as to Parts II and III, dissenting.
Our Nation is engaged in a heated debate about same-sex marriage. That debate is, at bottom, about the nature of the institution of marriage. Respondent Edith Windsor, supported by the United States, asks this Court to intervene in that debate, and although she couches her argument in different terms, what she seeks is a holding that enshrines in the Constitution a particular understanding of marriage under which the sex of the partners makes no difference. The Constitution, however, does not dictate that choice. It leaves the choice to the people, acting through their elected representatives at both the federal and state levels. I would therefore hold that Congress did not violate Windsor’s constitutional rights by enacting §3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 110Stat. 2419, which defines the meaning of marriage under federal statutes that either confer upon married persons cer- tain federal benefits or impose upon them certain federal obligations.
I turn first to the question of standing. In my view, the
United States clearly is not a proper petitioner in this case. The United States does not ask us to overturn the judgment of the court below or to alter that judgment in any way. Quite to the contrary, the United States argues emphatically in favor of the correctness of that judgment. We have never before reviewed a decision at the sole behest of a party that took such a position, and to do so would be to render an advisory opinion, in violation of Article III’s dictates. For the reasons given in Justice Scalia’s dissent, I do not find the Court’s arguments to the contrary to be persuasive.
Whether the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives (BLAG) has standing to petition is a much more difficult question. It is also a signifi- cantly closer question than whether the intervenors in Hol- lingsworth v. Perry, ante, p. ___ —which the Court also decides today—have standing to appeal. It is remarkable that the Court has simultaneously decided that the United States, which “receive[d] all that [it] ha[d] sought” below, Deposit Guaranty Nat. Bank v. Roper, 445 U. S. 326, 333 (1980) , is a proper petitioner in this case but that the intervenors in Hollingsworth, who represent the party that lost in the lower court, are not. In my view, both the Hollingsworth intervenors and BLAG have standing. [ 1 ]
A party invoking the Court’s authority has a sufficient stake to permit it to appeal when it has “ ‘suffered an injury in fact’ that is caused by ‘the conduct complained of’ and that ‘will be redressed by a favorable decision.’ ” Camreta v. Greene, 563 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 5) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U. S. 555 –561 (1992)). In the present case, the House of Representatives, which has authorized BLAG to represent its interests in this matter, [ 2 ] suffered just such an injury.
In INS v. Chadha, 462 U. S. 919 (1983) , the Court held that the two Houses of Congress were “proper parties” to file a petition in defense of the constitutionality of the one-house veto statute, id., at 930, n. 5 (internal quota- tion marks omitted). Accordingly, the Court granted and decided petitions by both the Senate and the House, in addition to the Executive’s petition. Id., at 919, n. *. That the two Houses had standing to petition is not surprising: The Court of Appeals’ decision in Chadha, by holding the one-house veto to be unconstitutional, had limited Congress’ power to legislate. In discussing Article III standing, the Court suggested that Congress suffered a similar injury whenever federal legislation it had passed was struck down, noting that it had “long held that Congress is the proper party to defend the validity of a statute when an agency of government, as a defendant charged with enforcing the statute, agrees with plaintiffs that the statute is inapplicable or unconstitutional.” Id., at 940.
The United States attempts to distinguish Chadha on the ground that it “involved an unusual statute that vested the House and the Senate themselves each with special procedural rights—namely, the right effectively to veto Executive action.” Brief for United States (jurisdiction) 36. But that is a distinction without a difference: just as the Court of Appeals decision that the Chadha Court affirmed impaired Congress’ power by striking down the one-house veto, so the Second Circuit’s decision here impairs Congress’ legislative power by striking down an Act of Congress. The United States has not explained why the fact that the impairment at issue in Chadha was “special” or “procedural” has any relevance to whether Congress suffered an injury. Indeed, because legislating is Congress’ central function, any impairment of that function is a more grievous injury than the impairment of a procedural add-on.
The Court’s decision in Coleman v. Miller, 307 U. S. 433 (1939) , bolsters this conclusion. In Coleman, we held that a group of state senators had standing to challenge a lower court decision approving the procedures used to ratify an amendment to the Federal Constitution. We reasoned that the senators’ votes—which would otherwise have carried the day—were nullified by that action. See id., at 438 (“Here, the plaintiffs include twenty senators, whose votes against ratification have been overridden and virtually held for naught although if they are right in their contentions their votes would have been sufficient to defeat ratification. We think that these senators have a plain, direct and adequate interest in maintaining the ef- fectiveness of their votes”); id., at 446 (“[W]e find no departure from principle in recognizing in the instant case that at least the twenty senators whose votes, if their contention were sustained, would have been sufficient to defeat the resolution ratifying the proposed constitutional amendment, have an interest in the controversy which, treated by the state court as a basis for entertaining and deciding the federal questions, is sufficient to give the Court jurisdiction to review that decision”). By striking down §3 of DOMA as unconstitutional, the Second Circuit effectively “held for naught” an Act of Congress. Just as the state-senator-petitioners in Coleman were necessary parties to the amendment’s ratification, the House of Representatives was a necessary party to DOMA’s passage; indeed, the House’s vote would have been sufficient to prevent DOMA’s repeal if the Court had not chosen to execute that repeal judicially.
Both the United States and the Court-appointed amicus err in arguing that Raines v. Byrd, 521 U. S. 811 (1997) , is to the contrary. In that case, the Court held that Members of Congress who had voted “nay” to the Line Item Veto Act did not have standing to challenge that statute in federal court. Raines is inapposite for two reasons. First, Raines dealt with individual Members of Congress and specifically pointed to the individual Members’ lack of institutional endorsement as a sign of their standing problem: “We attach some importance to the fact that appellees have not been authorized to represent their respective Houses of Congress in this action, and indeed both Houses actively oppose their suit.” Id., at 829; see also ibid., n. 10 (citing cases to the effect that “members of collegial bodies do not have standing to perfect an appeal the body itself has declined to take” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Second, the Members in Raines—unlike the state senators in Coleman—were not the pivotal figures whose votes would have caused the Act to fail absent some challenged action. Indeed, it is telling that Raines characterized Coleman as standing “for the proposition that legislators whose votes would have been sufficient to defeat (or enact) a specific legislative Act have standing to sue if that legislative action goes into effect (or does not go into effect), on the ground that their votes have been completely nullified.” 521 U. S., at 823. Here, by contrast, passage by the House was needed for DOMA to become law. U. S. Const., Art. I, §7 (bicameralism and presentment requirements for legislation).
I appreciate the argument that the Constitution confers on the President alone the authority to defend federal law in litigation, but in my view, as I have explained, that argument is contrary to the Court’s holding in Chadha, and it is certainly contrary to the Chadha Court’s endorsement of the principle that “Congress is the proper party to defend the validity of a statute” when the Executive refuses to do so on constitutional grounds. 462 U. S., at 940. See also 2 U. S. C. §288h(7) (Senate Legal Counsel shall defend the constitutionality of Acts of Congress when placed in issue). [ 3 ] Accordingly, in the narrow category of cases in which a court strikes down an Act of Congress and the Executive declines to defend the Act, Congress both has standing to defend the undefended statute and is a proper party to do so.
Windsor and the United States argue that §3 of DOMA violates the equal protection principles that the Court has found in the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. See Brief for Respondent Windsor (merits) 17–62; Brief for United States (merits) 16–54; cf. Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U. S. 497 (1954) . The Court rests its holding on related arguments. See ante, at 24–25.
Same-sex marriage presents a highly emotional and important question of public policy—but not a difficult ques- tion of constitutional law. The Constitution does not
guarantee the right to enter into a same-sex marriage. Indeed, no provision of the Constitution speaks to the issue.
The Court has sometimes found the Due Process Clauses to have a substantive component that guarantees liber- ties beyond the absence of physical restraint. And the Court’s holding that “DOMA is unconstitutional as a dep- rivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution,” ante, at 25, suggests that substantive due process may partially underlie the Court’s decision today. But it is well established that any “substantive” component to the Due Process Clause protects only “those fundamental rights and lib- erties which are, objectively, ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,’ ” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U. S. 702 –721 (1997); Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U. S. 97, 105 (1934) (referring to fundamental rights as those that are so “rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental”), as well as “ ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,’ such that ‘neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.’ ” Glucksberg, supra, at 721 (quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U. S. 319 –326 (1937)).
It is beyond dispute that the right to same-sex marriage is not deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition. In this country, no State permitted same-sex marriage until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in 2003 that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples violated the State Constitution. See Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309, 798 N. E. 2d 941. Nor is the right to same-sex marriage deeply rooted in the traditions of other nations. No country allowed same-sex couples to marry until the Netherlands did so in 2000. [ 4 ]
What Windsor and the United States seek, therefore, is not the protection of a deeply rooted right but the recognition of a very new right, and they seek this innovation not from a legislative body elected by the people, but from unelected judges. Faced with such a request, judges have cause for both caution and humility.
The family is an ancient and universal human institution. Family structure reflects the characteristics of a civilization, and changes in family structure and in the popular understanding of marriage and the family can have profound effects. Past changes in the understand- ing of marriage—for example, the gradual ascendance of the idea that romantic love is a prerequisite to marriage—have had far-reaching consequences. But the process by which such consequences come about is complex, involving the interaction of numerous factors, and tends to occur over an extended period of time.
We can expect something similar to take place if same-sex marriage becomes widely accepted. The long-term consequences of this change are not now known and are unlikely to be ascertainable for some time to come. [ 5 ] There are those who think that allowing same-sex marriage will seriously undermine the institution of marriage. See, e.g., S. Girgis, R. Anderson, & R. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense 53–58 (2012); Finnis, Marriage: A Basic and Exigent Good, 91 The Monist 388, 398
(2008). [ 6 ] Others think that recognition of same-sex marriage will fortify a now-shaky institution. See, e.g., A. Sullivan, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality 202–203 (1996); J. Rauch, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for Amer- ica 94 (2004).
At present, no one—including social scientists, philosophers, and historians—can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications of widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage will be. And judges are
certainly not equipped to make such an assessment. The Members of this Court have the authority and the responsibility to interpret and apply the Constitution. Thus, if the Constitution contained a provision guaranteeing the right to marry a person of the same sex, it would be our duty to enforce that right. But the Constitution simply does not speak to the issue of same-sex marriage. In our system of government, ultimate sovereignty rests with the people, and the people have the right to control their own destiny. Any change on a question so fundamental should be made by the people through their elected officials.
Perhaps because they cannot show that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right under our Constitution, Windsor and the United States couch their arguments in equal protection terms. They argue that §3 of DOMA discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, that classifications based on sexual orientation should trigger a form of “heightened” scrutiny, and that §3 cannot survive such scrutiny. They further maintain that the governmental interests that §3 purports to serve are not sufficiently important and that it has not been adequately shown that §3 serves those interests very well. The Court’s holding, too, seems to rest on “the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment,” ante, at 25—although the Court is careful not to adopt most of Windsor’s and the United States’ argument.
In my view, the approach that Windsor and the United States advocate is misguided. Our equal protection frame- work, upon which Windsor and the United States rely, is a judicial construct that provides a useful mechanism for analyzing a certain universe of equal protection cases. But that framework is ill suited for use in evaluating the constitutionality of laws based on the traditional understanding of marriage, which fundamentally turn on what marriage is.
Underlying our equal protection jurisprudence is the central notion that “[a] classification ‘must be reasonable, not arbitrary, and must rest upon some ground of difference having a fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation, so that all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike.’ ” Reed v. Reed, 404 U. S. 71, 76 (1971) (quoting F. S. Royter Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U. S. 412, 415 (1920) ). The modern tiers of scrutiny—on which Windsor and the United States rely so heavily—are a heuristic to help judges determine when classifications have that “fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation.” Reed, supra, at 76.
So, for example, those classifications subject to strict scrutiny—i.e., classifications that must be “narrowly tailored” to achieve a “compelling” government interest, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 551 U. S. 701, 720 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted)—are those that are “so seldom relevant to the achievement of any legitimate state interest that laws grounded in such considerations are deemed to reflect prejudice and antipathy.” Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U. S. 432, 440 (1985) ; cf. id., at 452–453 (Stevens, J., concurring) (“It would be utterly irrational to limit the franchise on the basis of height or weight; it is equally invalid to limit it on the basis of skin color. None of these attributes has any bearing at all on the citizen’s willingness or ability to exercise that civil right”).
In contrast, those characteristics subject to so-called intermediate scrutiny—i.e., those classifications that must be “ ‘substantially related’ ” to the achievement of “im- portant governmental objective[s],” United States v. Virginia, 518 U. S. 515, 524 (1996) ; id., at 567 (Scalia, J., dissenting)—are those that are sometimes relevant considerations to be taken into account by legislators, but “generally provid[e] no sensible ground for different treatment,” Cleburne, supra, at 440. For example, the Court has held that statutory rape laws that criminalize sexual intercourse with a woman under the age of 18 years, but place no similar liability on partners of underage men, are grounded in the very real distinction that “young men and young women are not similarly situated with respect to the problems and the risks of sexual intercourse.” Michael M. v. Superior Court, Sonoma Cty., 450 U. S. 464, 471 (1981) (plurality opnion). The plurality reasoned that “[o]nly women may become pregnant, and they suffer disproportionately the profound physical, emotional, and psychological consequences of sexual activity.” Ibid. In other contexts, however, the Court has found that classifications based on gender are “arbitrary,” Reed, supra, at 76, and based on “outmoded notions of the relative capabilities of men and women,” Cleburne, supra, at 441, as when a State provides that a man must always be preferred to an equally qualified woman when both seek to administer the estate of a deceased party, see Reed, supra, at 76–77.
Finally, so-called rational-basis review applies to classifications based on “distinguishing characteristics relevant to interests the State has the authority to implement.” Cleburne, supra, at 441. We have long recognized that “the equal protection of the laws must coexist with the practical necessity that most legislation classifies for one purpose or another, with resulting disadvantages to various groups or persons.” Romer v. Evans, 517 U. S. 620, 631 (1996) . As a result, in rational-basis cases, where the court does not view the classification at issue as “inher- ently suspect,” Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U. S. 200, 218 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted), “the courts have been very reluctant, as they should be in our federal system and with our respect for the separation of powers, to closely scrutinize legislative choices as to whether, how, and to what extent those interests should be pursued.” Cleburne, supra, at 441–442.
In asking the Court to determine that §3 of DOMA is subject to and violates heightened scrutiny, Windsor and the United States thus ask us to rule that the presence of two members of the opposite sex is as rationally related to marriage as white skin is to voting or a Y-chromosome is to the ability to administer an estate. That is a striking request and one that unelected judges should pause before granting. Acceptance of the argument would cast all those who cling to traditional beliefs about the nature of marriage in the role of bigots or superstitious fools.
By asking the Court to strike down DOMA as not satisfying some form of heightened scrutiny, Windsor and the United States are really seeking to have the Court resolve a debate between two competing views of marriage.
The first and older view, which I will call the “tradi- tional” or “conjugal” view, sees marriage as an intrinsically opposite-sex institution. BLAG notes that virtually every culture, including many not influenced by the Abrahamic religions, has limited marriage to people of the opposite sex. Brief for Respondent BLAG (merits) 2 (citing Hernandez v. Robles, 7 N. Y. 3d 338, 361, 855 N. E. 2d 1, 8 (2006) (“Until a few decades ago, it was an accepted truth for almost everyone who ever lived, in any society in which marriage existed, that there could be marriages only between participants of different sex”)). And BLAG attempts to explain this phenomenon by arguing that the institution of marriage was created for the purpose of channeling heterosexual intercourse into a structure that supports child rearing. Brief for Respondent BLAG 44–46, 49. Others explain the basis for the institution in more philosophical terms. They argue that marriage is essentially the solemnizing of a comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing new life, even if it does not always do so. See, e.g., Girgis, Anderson, & George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, at 23–28. While modern cultural changes have weakened the link between marriage and procreation in the popular mind, there is no doubt that, throughout human history and across many cultures, marriage has been viewed as an exclusively opposite-sex institution and as one inextricably linked to procreation and biological kinship.
The other, newer view is what I will call the “consent-based” vision of marriage, a vision that primarily defines marriage as the solemnization of mutual commitment—marked by strong emotional attachment and sexual attraction—between two persons. At least as it applies to heterosexual couples, this view of marriage now plays a very prominent role in the popular understanding of the institution. Indeed, our popular culture is infused with this understanding of marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage argue that because gender differentiation is not relevant to this vision, the exclusion of same-sex couples from the institution of marriage is rank discrimination.
The Constitution does not codify either of these views of marriage (although I suspect it would have been hard at the time of the adoption of the Constitution or the Fifth Amendment to find Americans who did not take the traditional view for granted). The silence of the Constitution on this question should be enough to end the matter as far as the judiciary is concerned. Yet, Windsor and the United States implicitly ask us to endorse the consent-based view of marriage and to reject the traditional view, thereby arrogating to ourselves the power to decide a question that philosophers, historians, social scientists, and theologians are better qualified to explore. [ 7 ] Because our consti- tutional order assigns the resolution of questions of this nature to the people, I would not presume to en- shrine either vision of marriage in our constitutional jurisprudence.
Legislatures, however, have little choice but to decide between the two views. We have long made clear that neither the political branches of the Federal Government nor state governments are required to be neutral between competing visions of the good, provided that the vision of the good that they adopt is not countermanded by the Constitution. See, e.g., Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U. S. 173, 192 (1991) (“[T]he government ‘may make a value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion’ ” (quoting Maher v. Rue, 432 U. S. 464, 474 (1977) )). Accordingly, both Congress and the States are entitled to enact laws recognizing either of the two understandings of marriage. And given the size of government and the degree to which it now regulates daily life, it seems unlikely that either Congress or the States could maintain complete neutrality even if they tried assiduously to do so.
Rather than fully embracing the arguments made by Windsor and the United States, the Court strikes down §3 of DOMA as a classification not properly supported by its objectives. The Court reaches this conclusion in part because it believes that §3 encroaches upon the States’ sovereign prerogative to define marriage. See ante, at 21–22 (“As the title and dynamics of the bill indicate, its purpose is to discourage enactment of state same-sex marriage laws and to restrict the freedom and choice of couples married under those laws if they are enacted. The congressional goal was ‘to put a thumb on the scales and influence a state’s decision as to how to shape its own marriage laws’ ” (quoting Massachusetts v. United States Dept. of Health and Human Servs., 682 F. 3d 1, 12–13 (CA1 2012))). Indeed, the Court’s ultimate conclusion is that DOMA falls afoul of the Fifth Amendment because it “singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty” and “imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper.” Ante, at 25 (emphasis added).
To the extent that the Court takes the position that the question of same-sex marriage should be resolved primar- ily at the state level, I wholeheartedly agree. I hope that the Court will ultimately permit the people of each State to decide this question for themselves. Unless the Court is willing to allow this to occur, the whiffs of federalism in the today’s opinion of the Court will soon be scattered to the wind.
In any event, §3 of DOMA, in my view, does not encroach on the prerogatives of the States, assuming of course that the many federal statutes affected by DOMA have not already done so. Section 3 does not prevent any State from recognizing same-sex marriage or from extending to same-sex couples any right, privilege, benefit, or obligation stemming from state law. All that §3 does is to define a class of persons to whom federal law extends cer- tain special benefits and upon whom federal law imposes certain special burdens. In these provisions, Congress used marital status as a way of defining this class—in part, I assume, because it viewed marriage as a valua- ble institution to be fostered and in part because it viewed married couples as comprising a unique type of economic unit that merits special regulatory treatment. Assuming that Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the laws affected by §3, Congress has the power to define the category of persons to whom those laws apply.
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For these reasons, I would hold that §3 of DOMA does not violate the Fifth Amendment. I respectfully dissent.