The outcry over federal judge Vaughn Walker’s decision overturning California’s Proposition 8 — which declared same-sex marriages unlawful — is hardly atypical where the Constitution is concerned. Why should a single judge, or nine (Supreme Court) judges, have the power to override the legitimate majority vote of citizens in a democracy?
The answer is that this is how it has always been in America. The constitutional checks and balances established by the Founding Fathers were intended to make the United States a republic; a political union in which the rights of those who are NOT in the majority are protected. That is why the Bill of Rights was added almost immediately after ratification of the Constitution. That is why the First Amendment protects the “free exercise” of religion from government control. Because in America, civil rights include the right not to be oppressed by the majority when essential liberties are concerned.
This is exactly how our constitutional democracy is supposed to work. Don’t blame federal judges for doing their jobs. The concept of judicial review has been at the core of our checks-and-balances democracy since the landmark Marbury vs. Madison ruling in 1803.
One can disagree with whether morality is a valid basis for legislation outlawing certain behavior. Constitutional law is split, with some decisions, like the 2003 case in which the Supreme Court overturned criminalization of consensual sodomy, indicating that moral values cannot trump individual rights. That rationale, of course, could also be extended to a variety of issues — from abortion to alcohol to public sex or nudity — in which only the sensibilities of others are affected.
The difference here is that, under the law as it stands now, legislation must have a secular purpose to survive constitutional challenge. The proponents of Prop 8 argued only that the initiative was intended to further society’s interest in procreation, that is child-bearing. But if that were the case, Judge Walker cogently explained, then fertility should be a precondition to traditional marriage, and couples unable to conceive or not wanting children would be barred from marrying. Not so long ago, interracial marriages were also unlawful. The outcry against the 1967 Supreme Court decision striking down such laws subsided rather quickly, and in my view that’s a good thing.
As if to prove Walker’s point, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony released a statement on Wednesday that said, “Those of us who supported Prop 8 and worked for its passage did so for one reason: We truly believe that marriage was instituted by God for the specific purpose of carrying out God’s plan for the world and human society. Period.”
200 years ago slavery was accepted and written into the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment changed all that after the Dred Scott decision declared that slaves were property and not citizens. It took a long and brutal civil war to make the leap, but America was and is better off. Whether or not you agree that gay marriage should be constitutionally protected, the system of judicial review is quintessentially American and something to be celebrated.