I’m still working my way through the transcript (pdf) of today’s Supreme Court oral argument on California’s Prop 8, but there’s one quote that already seems to be generating quite a bit of attention. It comes by way of Justice Samuel Alito:
“Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new. I think it was first adopted in The Netherlands in 2000. So there isn’t a lot of data about its effect. And it may turn out to be a – a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing, as the supporters of Proposition 8 apparently believe.
“But you want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution, which is newer than cell phones or the Internet? I mean we – we are not – we do not have the ability to see the future. On a question like that, of such fundamental importance, why should it not be left for the people, either acting through initiatives and referendums or through their elected public officials?”
Alito’s argument seems to be one focused on the calendar. Perhaps, the theory goes, millions of Americans can be denied equal rights for an indefinite period of time, and jurists can revisit the issue in the future. At that point, they can ask once more whether or not allowing two consenting adults to get married is “a good thing.”
Remember the fine print in the Declaration of Independence? We have an inalienable right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, just so long as the specific type of happiness is older than mobile telephones.
I’m not altogether sure what Alito thinks might happen, even if he had “the ability to see the future,” but the larger question seems to be the justice’s willingness to leave marriage rights “for the people.” What’s wrong with that? The answer, I suspect, has something to do with the nature of rights – they are, by definition, opportunities afforded to people that cannot be taken away without due process.
Rights are not supposed to be open to popularity contests. Throughout American history, if all contentious decisions over civil rights were left solely to popular will and the political process, progress would have been very slow, indeed. It’s precisely why Americans have turned to their last available option – the courts – as a way of ensuring their rights are protected.
What’s more, as Solicitor General Donald Virrelli reminded Alito, opponents of marriage equality aren’t seeking a pause to progress, or decisions through initiatives, referendums, or the political process – they’re seeking constitutional amendments to permanently limit the rights of same-sex couples.
Virrelli also reminded the justices:
“[T]he principal argument in 1967 with respect to Loving and that the Commonwealth of Virginia advanced was: Well, the social science is still uncertain about how biracial children will fare in this world, and so you ought to apply rational basis scrutiny and wait. And I think the Court recognized that there is a cost to waiting and that that has got to be part of the equal protection calculus.”