A crowd celebrates at Los Angeles City Hall in February, after the 9th Circuit… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)
WASHINGTON — After two decades in which gay rights moved from the margin to capture the support of most Americans, the Supreme Court justices will go behind closed doors this week to decide whether now is the time to rule on whether gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.
For justices, the issue is not just what to decide, but when to decide it. In times past, the court has been faulted for waiting too long or moving too quickly to recognize constitutional rights.
The justices did not strike down state bans on interracial marriage until 1967, 13 years after they had declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Yet in response to the growing women's rights movement, the court in 1973 struck down all the state laws restricting abortion, triggering a national "right to life" movement and drawing criticism even from some supporters that the Roe vs. Wade ruling had gone too far too fast.
Now, the justices must decide whether to hear an appeal from the defenders of California's Proposition 8, the 2008 voter initiative that limited marriage to a man and a woman.
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At the same session Friday, the court will sift through several appeals to decide whether legally married gay couples have a right to equal benefits under federal law. Appeals courts in Boston and New York have struck down the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denies such a right, and the justices are almost certain to take up a case to resolve that question.
The Proposition 8 case, known as Hollingsworth vs. Perry, presents justices with the more profound "right to marry" question.
Opinion polls now show a majority of Americans favor marriage equality, and support for it has been growing about 4% per year. On Nov. 6, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved same-sex marriage, bringing the total to nine states.
Does the shift in public opinion suggest the court should uphold gay marriage now, or wait for more states, perhaps a majority, to legalize it?
Defenders of Proposition 8 say their case "raises the profoundly important question of whether the ancient and vital institution of marriage should be fundamentally redefined," and in this instance, by federal judges.
A federal judge in San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 as discriminatory and irrational. In February, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that by a 2-1 vote, ruling the ban on gay marriage violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The majority relied heavily on a 1996 opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that had struck down an anti-gay initiative adopted by Colorado voters.
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The decision on whether to hear the case could be a hard call for both the court's conservatives and liberals.
Usually, the justices are inclined to vote to hear a case if they disagree with the lower court ruling. The most conservative justices — Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — almost certainly think the 9th Circuit's ruling was dubious. Scalia, for example, says the "equal protection" clause, added to the Constitution after the Civil War, aimed to stop racial discrimination and nothing more. He often insists the justices are not authorized to give a contemporary interpretation to phrases such as "equal protection."
If Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joins the other three, the conservatives would have the needed four votes to hear the Proposition 8 case.
They may hesitate. To form a majority, they would need Kennedy, the author of the court's two strongest gay rights rulings. His 2003 opinion struck down a Texas anti-sodomy law and said the state could not "demean" gays by treating them as second-class citizens. Five months later, the Massachusetts high court, citing Kennedy's opinion, became the first to rule that gays and lesbians had a right to marry.
If the court were to take up the Proposition 8 case, Kennedy, 76, would likely control the opinion.
"If you care about history and your legacy, that must be pretty tempting, to write the court's opinion that could be the Brown vs. Board of Education of the gay rights movement," said Michael J. Klarman, a Harvard legal historian, referring to the case that ordered school desegregation.
Still, the court's liberals also may hesitate. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, though a leading women's rights legal advocate, has said she thought the court made a mistake in the 1970s by moving too fast to declare a national right to abortion.
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