Obergefell v. Hodges: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impacts

Same-Sex Marriage and the Fourteenth Amendment

a flag waves in front of the Supreme Court

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In Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the United States Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, and therefore must be afforded to same-sex couples. The ruling ensured that statewide bans on same-sex marriage could not be held up as constitutional. 

Fast Facts: Obergefell v. Hodges

  • Case Argued: April 28, 2015
  • Decision Issued: June 26, 2015
  • Petitioner: James Obergefell and John Arthur, one of the fourteen couples who took issue with full or partial state bans on same-sex marriage
  • Respondent: Richard A. Hodges, Director of the Ohio Department of Health
  • Key Questions: Is marriage a fundamental right and therefore protected by the Fourteenth Amendment? Can states refuse to grant or recognize marriage licenses of same-sex couples?
  • Majority: Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan
  • Dissenting: Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito
  • Ruling: Marriage is a fundamental right. State bans on same-sex marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause

Facts of the Case

Obergefell v. Hodges started out as six separate lawsuits split between four states. By 2015 Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee ⁠had passed laws that restricted marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Dozens of plaintiffs, mostly same-sex couples, sued in various state courts, arguing that their Fourteenth Amendment protections were violated when they were denied the right to marry or have marriages that were lawfully conducted be fully recognized in other states. Individual district courts ruled in their favor and the cases were consolidated before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. A three-judge panel voted 2-1 to collectively reverse the district courts’ judgments, ruling that states could refuse to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses or refuse to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. States were not bound by a constitutional obligation in terms of marriage, the appeals court found. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on a limited basis under a writ of certiorari.

Constitutional Issues

Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to grant a marriage license to same-sex couples? Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage license granted to a same-sex couple, if the state would not have granted the license if the marriage were performed within its borders?

Arguments

Attorneys on behalf of the couples argued that they were not asking for the Supreme Court to "create" a new right, allowing same-sex couples to marry. Attorneys for the couples reasoned that the Supreme Court need only find that marriage is a fundamental right, and citizens are entitled equal protection regarding that right. The Supreme Court would only be affirming equality of access, rather than extending new rights to marginal groups, the attorneys argued.

Attorneys on behalf of the states argued that marriage is not explicitly listed as a fundamental right within the Fourteenth Amendment, and its definition should therefore be left to the states. Statewide bans on same-sex marriage could not be considered acts of discrimination. Instead, they should be regarded as legal principles affirming widely held beliefs that marriage is a "gender-differentiated union of man and woman." If the Supreme Court were to define marriage, it would take power away from individual voters and undermine the democratic process, the attorneys argued.

Majority Opinion

Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the 5-4 decision. The Court found that marriage is a fundamental right, “as a matter of history and tradition.” It is therefore protected under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause, which prevents states from depriving anyone of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The right of same-sex couples to marry is also protected by the equal protection clause, which reads that a state cannot "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

“The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change,” Justice Kennedy wrote. He identified four principles that demonstrate marriage is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution.

  1. the right to marry is a personal choice, and therefore important to individual autonomy
  2. marriage is a union unlike any other and should be regarded for its importance to the individuals joined in matrimony
  3. marriage is proven to be important for raising children, therefore impacting other fundamental rights such as education and procreation
  4. marriage is a "keystone of the Nation's social order."

To deny same-sex couples the right to marry, would be to indulge the practice of denying a particular group rights simply because they did not explicitly have them in the past, which is something the Supreme Court has not endorsed, Justice Kennedy wrote. He pointed to Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court invoked the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause to strike down laws banning interracial marriage. Allowing different states to enact different laws regarding same-sex marriage only creates "instability and uncertainty" for same-sex couples and causes "substantial and continuing harm," Justice Kennedy wrote. Fundamental rights cannot be put to a vote.

Justice Kennedy wrote:

“Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”

Dissenting Opinion

Each dissenting Justice authored his own opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts argued that marriage should have been left to the states and individual voters. Overtime, the "core definition" of marriage has not changed, he wrote. Even in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court upheld the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman. Chief Justice Roberts questioned how the Court could remove genders from the definition, and yet claim the definition was still intact.

Justice Antonin Scalia characterized the decision as a political one, rather than a judicial one. Nine justices had decided a matter better left in the hands of voters, he wrote. Justice Scalia called the decision a "threat to American democracy."

Justice Clarence Thomas took issue with the majority's interpretation of the Due Process Clause. "Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits," Justice Thomas wrote. The majority, he argued, invoked "liberty" in their decision in a way that was different from how the Founding Fathers intended it.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the majority had imposed its views on the American people. Even the most "enthusiastic" defenders of same-sex marriage should have concerns about what the Court's decision might mean for future rulings.

Impact

By 2015, 70 percent of states and the District of Columbia had already recognized same-sex marriage. Obergefell v. Hodges officially overturned remaining state laws that banned same-sex marriage. In ruling that marriage is a fundamental right and extending equal protection to same-sex couples, the Supreme Court created a formal obligation for states to respect the institution of marriage as a voluntary union. As a result of Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex couples are entitled to the same benefits as opposite-sex couples including spousal benefits, inheritance rights, and emergency medical decision-making power.

Sources

  • Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015).
  • Blackburn Koch, Brittany. “The Effect of Obergefell v. Hodges for Same-Sex Couples.” The National Law Review, 17 July 2015, https://www.natlawreview.com/article/effect-obergefell-v-hodges-same-sex-couples.
  • Denniston, Lyle. “Preview on Same-Sex Marriage - Part I, The Couples' Views.” SCOTUSblog, 13 Apr. 2015, https://www.scotusblog.com/2015/04/preview-on-marriage-part-i-the-couples-views/.
  • Barlow, Rich. “The Impact of the Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decision.” BU Today, Boston University, 30 June 2015, https://www.bu.edu/articles/2015/supreme-court-gay-marriage-decision-2015.
  • Terkel, Amanda, et al. “Meet The Couples Fighting To Make Marriage Equality The Law Of The Land.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7 Dec. 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/supreme-court-marriage-_n_7604396.