BY ARI EZRA WALDMAN
The justices of the Supreme Court are meeting right now to discuss a slew of petitions for hearings. There are seven such petitions on marriage equality cases from Oklahoma, Indiana, Utah, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
Regular Towleroad readers will recall our review of these cases here (discussing the Tenth Circuit decision declaring Utah's ban unconstitutional), here (discussing a similar decision about Virginia's ban at the Fourth Circuit), here (discussing the "Posner treatment" that lawyers for Indiana and Wisconsin got at the Seventh Circuit), and here (discussing the Seventh Circuit decision).
Even though these cases are "ripe" -- the legal term for "ready" -- for review and even though both sides of all seven cases agree that the Supreme Court should take the case, do not expect the Court to take any of the cases today.
There are several reasons the Court may take at least one case:
First, everyone wants it. Freedom to Marry has an ongoing campaign urging the Court to take a marriage equality case and end marriage discrimination nationwide. Anti-gay and pro-equality attorneys filed briefs urging the Court to take their cases, both sides confident they can win. And that does not always happen. Generally, the party that wins in the appellate court is rarely inclined to have a higher court review the decision. Here, many people think it has to happen.
Second, all the decisions are stayed pending Supreme Court review. Every day that passes without a Supreme Court decision is another day in which gay couples face discrimination even though several federal appellate courts have said that the discrimination is unconstitutional, wrong, and must go. The orders stemming from those decisions are on hold pending a final word from the Supreme Court.
Third, these cases pose all the issues. Sometimes, the Court will decline to take a case because the case before it does not raise all the issues or because a quirk at the lower court prevents it from making a complete decision. It happens quite a bit: Imagine a criminal case where an attorney fails to make an objection or a defendant concedes a question of law. If that happens, an appellate court can rarely address those controversies. Here, all issues are in play, including heightened scrutiny.
There are, however, many more reasons why the Court may not take a case just yet.
First, there is no circuit split. Every appellate court to hear a marriage equality case has decided against the ban, declaring them all unconstitutional. Sure, the Seventh Circuit did it in flamboyant, unanimous fashion, but that's just icing. The Supreme Court most often takes cases when there is a disagreement between the circuits. Here there is none. And, a decision at the Eighth Circuit from before the Supreme Court decided Windsor does not count. There has been intervening case law that could impact the decision and, as such, the Eighth Circuit decision does not create a circuit split.
Second, there are several other cases pending. We have cases in the Ninth Circuit and, more importantly, in the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit hearing, which we discussed here, did not give us obvious clues as to its outcome. One judge seemed inclined to vote against the ban, another judge was in favor of discrimination. A third judge, a George W. Bush appointee and a conservative, is more of a wild card. If the Sixth Circuit goes against marriage equality, that would create a circuit split and would force the Supreme Court to act.
Third, there may be no need for the Supreme Court. If the Sixth Circuit goes with its sister courts -- an eventuality made more likely when someone as conservative and well-respect as Judge Posner eviscerated all anti-equality arguments -- there still will be no circuit split. The Ninth Circuit will decide its cases shortly, and will very likely strike down the bans. A couple of circuits are left, but it is not clear any of them will push the Court to act.
Fourth, Justice Ginsburg wants to wait. In a talk at the University of Minnesota, the dean of the Court's liberal wing suggested that she was inclined to wait for the Sixth Circuit (and perhaps other circuits) to act. There is no rush, she said. The Court will act when it is necessary.
Waiting might also be a good thing for the marriage equality journey in the long run. The longer we wait, the more federal circuit victories we can rack up, proving to wary conservative justices that the American consensus has emerged. Few -- maybe Justices Scalia and Thomas -- are going to want to stand in the way of that.
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Ari Ezra Waldman is a professor of law and the Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy at New York Law School and is concurrently pursuing his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. Ari writes weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues.