On Friday, the nation awaited the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the cases challenging California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. Those expecting the court to make a decision Friday were left in suspense, however, as the court did not decide whether it would hear cases related to either of the laws.
The justices met behind closed doors to decide which of the cases, including the appeal of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision to strike down Prop. 8, would receive a full hearing next year. If it chooses to address the DOMA, the Supreme Court would be tasked with resolving differences in constitutionality in different courts. Appeals courts in New York and Boston struck down parts of DOMA as unconstitutional.
“There are a number of conflicts among the lower courts in terms of the decisions that need to be resolved,” said Ange-Marie Hancock, associate professor of political science at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “One of those in particular is the level of scrutiny that is applied to laws that treat people differently on the bases of their sexual orientation. So the primary job of the Supreme Court is to resolve questions like when different federal circuits disagree about the level of scrutiny that should be applied.”
If the court chooses to hear Prop. 8, it would be tasked with deciding if the Ninth Circuit’s ruling against same-sex marriage should stand.
The courts could also decide not to hear any cases having to do with the two laws. Hancock said this is a strong possibility considering the background of the court.
“The court is very divided politically about this issue, given earlier decisions in last year’s term. For example, the health care decision,” she said. “The court may not want to take on another political case like that right now because things are delicate in internal dynamics.”
Those same dynamics could also cause the court difficulty in coming to a decision, Hancock said.
“They don’t feel that they have a strong opinion, meaning they can’t come to an agreement about what the level of scrutiny should be,” she said. “They might just keep the status quo and in some cases, that means that same-sex marriage would become the law of the land, like in California.”
If the Supreme Court chooses not to hear the case, the lower court’s decision will stand, ruling Prop. 8 unconstitutional and allowing same-sex couples to marry in California.
Justice Kennedy is among those who could effectively decide the two cases were they to go to court. According to Hancock, Kennedy has often been the swing vote in the last 20 years and as a result, both sides are using his likelihood to side with them as the barometer of the cases’ outcomes.
“My guess is some of the conservatives might think that they have a slightly better shot at swaying him, despite the fact that he has voted with the liberals in the past on a lot of general issues,” Hancock said.
Students such as Emily Huang, a sophomore majoring in human biology and sociology, believe the case for Prop. 8 should be heard because of the opportunity to set a national precedent.
“They should hear the case because it could possibly set the precedent for legalizing gay marriage in the entire U.S.,” Huang said. “Their inaction makes me think that they may not, which I find interesting because that will defer the decision to the Appeals Court, which would legalize gay marriage in California.”
However, other students like Cameron Gilbert, a freshman majoring in biomedical engineering and East Asian languages and cultures, said they understand why the court might not take on the cases.
“Given the current heated political climate and the hysteria over the incoming fiscal disaster, I can understand why it might get pushed to the side,” Gilbert said. “I don’t quite know exactly how the SC decides what to review, so it’s certainly possible that more pressing issues were on the table — especially as more and more states continue to legalize gay marriage every year it seems like it won’t be long before it’s defaulted into a non-issue.”
This Friday, the court will once again meet to discuss which cases they will hear next year.