Let the People Decide

ANTONIN SCALIA

In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated.

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Antonin Scalia

This case is about power in several respects.  It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law.  Today's opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former ...

[In its holding, the Court] accuses the Congress that enacted this law and the President who signed it of something much worse than, for example, having acted in excess of enumerated federal powers — or even having drawn distinctions that prove to be irrational.  Those legal errors may be made in good faith, errors though they are.  But the majority says that the supporters of this Act acted with malice — with the "purpose" "to disparage and to injure" same-sex couples.  It says that the motivation for DOMA was to "demean," to "impose inequality," to "impose ... a stigma," to deny people "equal dignity," to brand gay people as "unworthy," and to "humiliat[e]" their children.

I am sure these accusations are quite untrue.  To be sure (as the majority points out), the legislation is called the Defense of Marriage Act.  But to defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean, or humiliate other constitutions.  To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution.  In the majority's judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement.  To question its high-handed invalidation of a presumptively valid statute is to act (the majority is sure) with the purpose to "disparage," "injure," "degrade," "demean," and "humiliate" our fellow human beings, our fellow citizens, who are homosexual.  All that, simply for supporting an Act that did no more than codify an aspect of marriage that had been unquestioned in our society for most of its existence — indeed, had been unquestioned in virtually all societies for virtually all of human history.  It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race ...


By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.  Henceforth those challengers will lead with this Court's declaration that there is "no legitimate purpose" served by such a law, and will claim that the traditional definition has "the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure" the "personhood and dignity" of same-sex couples.  The majority's limiting assurance will be meaningless in the face of language like that, as the majority well knows.  That is why the language is there.  The result will be a judicial distortion of our society's debate over marriage — a debate that can seem in need of our clumsy "help" only to a member of this institution.

By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.

As to that debate:  Few public controversies touch an institution so central to the lives of so many, and few inspire such attendant passion by good people on all sides.  Few public controversies will ever demonstrate so vividly the beauty of what our Framers gave us, a gift the Court pawns today to buy its stolen moment in the spotlight: a system of government that permits us to rule ourselves.  Since DOMA's passage, citizens on all sides of the question have seen victories and they have seen defeats.  There have been plebiscites, legislation, persuasion, and loud voices — in other words, democracy. 

Victories in one place for some, see North Carolina Const., Amdt. 1 (providing that "[m]arriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State," approved by a popular vote, 61% to 39% on May 8, 2012, are offset by victories in other places for others, see Maryland Question 6 (establishing "that Maryland's civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license," approved by a popular vote, 52% to 48%, on November 6, 2012).  Even in a single State, the question has come out differently on different occasions.  Compare Maine Question 1 (permitting "the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples," approved by a popular vote, 53% to 47%, on November 6, 2012) with Maine Question 1 (rejecting "the new law that lets same-sex couples marry," approved by a popular vote, 53% to 47%, on November 3, 2009).

In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white:  Hate your neighbor or come along with us.  The truth is more complicated.  It is hard to admit that one's political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle.  Too bad.  A reminder that disagreement over something so fundamental as marriage can still be politically legitimate would have been a fit task for what in earlier times was called the judicial temperament.  We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution.  We might have let the People decide.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Antonin Gregory Scalia. "Let the People Decide." from the dissenting opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia in U.S. v. Windsor (June 27, 2013).

THE AUTHOR

Antonin Gregory Scalia is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As the longest-serving justice currently on the Court, Scalia is the Senior Associate Justice. Appointed to the Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Scalia has been described as the intellectual anchor of the Court's conservative wing.

Copyright © 2013 Justice Antonin Scalia