Obergefell v. Hodges

Following is the case brief for Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2534 (2015)

Case Summary of Obergefell v. Hodges:

  • Petitioners, a number of same-sex couples, sued four states that denied marriage licenses to those couples because those states defined marriage as being a union between one man and one woman.
  • Petitioners won in all of the federal district courts in which they sued.
  • The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals consolidated all of the cases and then reversed, finding that no state is obliged to license a same-sex marriage, nor recognize such a marriage performed in another state.
  • The United States Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, holding that marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied to same-sex couples under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Obergefell v. Hodges Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Four states, Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, have laws that define marriage as a union of one man and one woman.  Fourteen same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners were deceased (collectively, “petitioners”) filed lawsuits against those state laws, claiming that the denial of petitioners’ ability to marry, or have their marriage in other states recognized, violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • Petitioners filed their lawsuits in the federal district courts in their home states.  Each district court ruled in favor of the petitioners.  The four states appealed.
  • The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals consolidated all of the cases.  It reversed the judgments of the district courts, holding that a state has no obligation to license same-sex marriages, or to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issues and Holdings:

  1. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?  Yes.
  2. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a same-sex marriage licensed and performed in another state that allows same-sex marriage?  Yes.

Judgment:

The judgment of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license same-sex marriages, and to recognize same-sex marriages licensed and performed in other states.

Reasoning:

  • History Shows that Same-Sex Marriage Must Be Permitted

The fact that same-sex couples desire to participate in the institution of marriage shows their deep respect for the institution.  Thus, opponents of same-sex marriage are wrong to claim that allowing same-sex couples to marry demeans the institution.

Also, though the institution of marriage has been around for centuries, its history has been characterized by change.  Arranged marriages, the law of coverture, and other antiquated notions of marriage have given way to more modern conceptions of the institution.  Such evolution has not weakened, but rather strengthened, the institution.  In fact, the acceptance of same-sex couples over the last several decades shows that public attitudes shift over time.

  • Same-Sex Marriage is a Right Under the Due Process Clause

Requiring states to license same-sex marriage is grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process clause.  The right to marry, including for same-sex couples, is fundamental under the Constitution for four reasons:  (i) individual autonomy dictates our personal choice on who to marry; (ii) we have a right to enjoy intimate association; (iii) it protects children and families, because children suffer if they are raised by unmarried parents; (iv) marriage is a keystone to our nation’s social order.

  • Same-Sex Marriage is a Right Under Equal Protection

The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection also requires that all states license same-sex marriage.  Burdening the liberty of same-sex couples, but not that of opposite-sex couples, shows that current laws are inherently unequal.

  • Waiting for Further Legislative Action is Untenable

The desire to wait for political/legislative action would be unwise in this case because it would amount to allowing further discrimination against same-sex couples.  The Court sees immediate harm being inflicted upon the petitioners due to the laws at issue in the case.  Therefore, it would be improper to wait any longer to remedy that harm, particularly when the laws at issue infringe upon the petitioners’ fundamental right to marry.

Finally, because all states must license same-sex marriage as a fundamental right, it naturally follows that states must also recognize same-sex marriages licensed in other states.

Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Roberts):

Even if allowing same-sex marriage is rooted in fairness, it is not addressed by the Constitution.  Accordingly, the decision on whether to allow same-sex marriage should be left up to the states.  Other Court expansions of marriage laws are not applicable here because they did not change the very definition of marriage.  Further, the majority opinion relies on an overly expansive view of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.  The Court should not go too far into judicial policymaking.

Dissenting Opinion (Scalia):

The majority opinion overstepped the Court’s authority by making a legislative determination.  Rather, it is for the states to make a legislative determination about how marriage is defined, and the Constitution leaves that determination to the states.

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas):

The legislative history of the due process clauses in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments was rooted in retraining government power, not granting entitlements.  The majority decision also infringes on religious rights.  The states, through the legislative process, should be allowed to make that judgment between competing interests of same-sex couples and religious communities.

Dissenting Opinion (Alito):

Because the Constitution does not address the right to marry, it left that determination to the states.  The majority creates a new right here, which is a dangerous departure from proper judicial authority under the Constitution.

Significance:

The importance of Obergefell v. Hodges cannot be overstated.  It is a landmark case for LGBTQ rights.  It is the Supreme Court opinion that made same-sex marriage legal throughout the entire United States.  This case settled, once and for all, the decades long debate about whether states could legalize same-sex marriage, and whether other states needed to recognize same-sex marriages.

Student Resources:

New York Time article with highlights of the landmark Obergefell decision

Washington Post article summarizing the oral argument

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