A few have asked me to explain the meaning of the refusal of the Supreme Court to review gay marriage again.
Let’s start with the technicalities: The Supreme Court of the United States, unlike many Constitutional Courts around the world, is the overall ultimate instance and doesn’t just decide matters of constitutionality, it has broad sweep of the legal landscape and its rulings are binding on everyone in this country. It is also free to choose the matters it wants to tackle. Technically, it is limited to reviewing lower court opinions, but since anyone with a chance to appeal, does, it gets to see pretty much everything that goes on in the legal landscape.
The Supreme Court (of the United States, short SCOTUS) heard a case last year. It was about a woman who had married another woman in a state where it was legal. The woman’s wife died, leaving behind a considerable estate. Since the couple were not legally married in the eyes of the Federal Government, the tax office wanted to collect estate tax as if the two were completely unrelated strangers, instead of the much lower tax rate for married couples.
This case, styled United States v. Windsor, was a particularly good case for the cause of gay marriage. Here we had a couple who had been married in the state they lived in for years, who was denied a substantial Federal benefit because the government chose not to recognize their marriage. This had all sorts of ominous undertones for conservatives and liberals alike: what was the Federal government’s business picking what marriages it liked?
SCOTUS decided the law on which this discrimination was based had to go. With the slimmest of possible majorities (5-4) it declared the law unconstitutional. Dissenting opinions (from three judges) focused on the legalistic argle-bargle, the confusing nature of the Court’s finding. In that, they were absolutely right: just as was the case in the Prop 8 case, the Court refused to be clear about its intent. Which is precisely what they wanted, the thing you would expect from a bunch of Catholics trying to do the right thing and not run afoul of church teaching.
After the ruling in United States v. Windsor, lower courts knew what SCOTUS meant. One after another, court cases on invalidation of same-sex marriage bans were decided, and virtually all of them were in favor of allowing gay marriage. More than that, every single appellate court decided in favor of same-sex marriage.